On the cover of We Are Not Such Things are three boys, about five or six years old, dressed in smart Sunday best. The photograph is faded, but the boys are clear-skinned and bright-eyed, drowning slightly in their little rumpled suits. One of these boys – the one on the right, looking away from you and into the distance – is Easy Nofemela. Many years after this photo was taken, he would stand in a Cape Town courtroom, accused, among others, of the brutal murder of a young white American woman called Amy Biehl. The state lawyer would assert his view that Amy’s murder could not have been committed with a political objective, that ‘It was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood. Isn’t that the truth?’ And Easy, a man now, responded ‘No, that’s not true, that’s not true. We are not such things.’
Easy was one of four men convicted of killing Amy Biehl. A Fulbright scholar and human rights activist, Amy had been living in South Africa during the last days of apartheid in order to research the rights and roles of women in an emerging democracy. On the evening she died – the 25th August 1993 – she had driven two friends home to a township called Gugulethu, near Cape Town. There, her car was surrounded by a group of young men on their way back from a political rally for an African nationalist party called the Pan Africanist Congress. Chanting the slogan ‘One settler, one bullet’, some of the men began to throw rocks at the car. When Amy left her car and ran, they chased her, caught up with her and stabbed and stoned her to death.
This moment of horrific violence is the crux of We Are Not Such Things. The book’s main concern, however, is what happened after this.
Over the following years, Amy’s parents came to South Africa often. They wanted to see the country their daughter was passionate about, and to carry on her good work. In 1994 they set up a charity called The Amy Biehl Foundation. In 1997, four years after the murder, Easy and the three other convicted men sat before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been set up to grant amnesty to prisoners in cases where crimes committed could be shown to have been politically motivated and related to apartheid. The Biehls attended the Commission, to support the Truth and Reconciliation process. When the men were freed soon afterwards, a mutual contact arranged for the Biehls to meet Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, one of the other accused. Easy and Ntobeko became close to the Biehls. Eventually, both took up jobs at The Amy Biehl Foundation.
So the hideous injustice of apartheid, and the rage it had produced, had given way to a more peaceful time. Convicted murderers could be reconciled with their victim’s parents, and devastated, bereaved parents could invite the killers of their own daughter to join them in their charity work. The story is remarkable, and inspiring – almost like an advert for the new South Africa, a poster for restorative justice and the successes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And yet, as Justine van der Leun shows in We Are Not Such Things, ‘story’ is the operative word here. Which is not to say that the above version of events is not ‘true’, but that its components have been forced into a narrative which necessarily omits and distorts. The reality, she discovered – or realities, because there are many perspectives here – was far messier, far more complex, far less shiny.
It’s this need for a narrative, for an arc we can understand and a history we can make sense of – particularly when dealing with grief and trauma – that is the real subject of Justine van der Leun’s heartbreaking, ambitious, disturbing book. The book shows how certain stories are preserved, while others are forgotten. It explores the various complex reasons why people play the roles designated to them, or give up trying to resist them. We Are Not Such Things is not always a comfortable read. It’s upsetting, and challenging, and awash with unanswered questions – about guilt, justice, race, and how or whether societies can ever move forwards from a system as damaging as apartheid. But it is also rich, human, compelling, and for anyone interested in power, equality, justice and forgiveness, it’s an indispensable reading experience.
Words by Anna Kelly, editor of We Are Not Such Things
We Are Not Such Things is published on 30th of June