We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, A South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation


In 1993, during the final days of apartheid in South Africa, a white American Fulbright scholar named Amy Biehl was killed by a mob of young black protestors in the township of Gugulethu outside Cape Town.  Her story — from the violence of her death to her parents' swift forgiveness of their daughter's killers — came to symbolize the transcendent success of South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Two decades later, Justine van der Leun moved to South Africa with her husband and began to research Amy Biehl's story in hopes of writing a book for American audiences.  As she interviewed people who had been in Gugulethu on the day of the murder, including the men convicted of the crime, strange discrepancies began to emerge in their stories.  We Are Not Such Things is Van der Leun's untangling of the complex narratives surrounding Amy Biehl and her killers — and her search for the  messy and elusive truth.

"Until I met Mzi at a burger shop downtown, I had been tracking the same story that every journalist before me had written, except that my aim had been to tell for the first time the full tale as it stretched over two decades. But Mzi informed me that he believed that this long-accepted story of the circumstances of Amy's death was not exactly accurate.  His revelation had led me, in a series of nearly unbelievable coincidences, to a meeting I had had the day before.  After months of frenzied searching, I had finally found an old and ruined man who had also been in Gugulethu on August 25, 1993, though few remembered him. Nobody had ever told his account of that day, nor made the chilling links between what had happened to him and what had happened to Amy Biehl five hours later and a quarter mile away. The old man knew something about brutal mobs and racial violence, and he was the final piece in the jigsaw I had been painstakingly piecing together for two years."

Justine van der Leun is the author of Marcus of Umbria, a travel memoir, and We Are Not Such Things.  She has written for Harper's and The Guardian, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Published:  2016
Length:  448 pages
Set in:  Gugulethu and Cape Town, South Africa