Authors: Justine van der Leun
Copyright © 2016 by Justine van der Leun
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
and Design is a registered trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
Darhansoff & Verrill Literary Agents:
“No foreign sky…” from “Requiem 1935–1940” from
Poems of Akhmatova
by Anna Akhmatova, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997), copyright © 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973 by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Darhansoff & Verrill Literary Agents.
Excerpt from “To Those Who Follow in Our Wake” by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Scott Horton, copyright © 2008 by Harper’s Magazine. All rights reserved. Reprinted from the January 2008 issue by special permission of
Excerpt from “Long You Must Suffer” from
The Essential Rilke,
selected and translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, translation copyright © 1999 by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Van der Leun, Justine, author.
Title: We are not such things: the murder of a young American, a South African township, and the search for truth and reconciliation / by Justine van der Leun.
Description: First edition. | New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2015045138| ISBN 9780812994506 | ISBN 9780812994513 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Biehl, Amy—Death and burial. | South Africa. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. | Murder—Political aspects—South Africa—Cape Town. | Anti-apartheid activists—Crimes against—South Africa. | Fulbright scholars—Crimes against—South Africa. | South Africa—Race relations—Political aspects—History—20th century. | Gugulethu (Cape Town, South Africa)—Social conditions—History.
Classification: LCC DT1974.2 .V35 2016 | DDC 305.8009687355—dc23 LC record available at
ebook ISBN 9780812994513
Book design by Caroline Cunningham, adapted for ebook
Cover design: Rachel Ake
Cover images: Shutterstock
Map by Jeffrey L. Ward
Frontispiece photo: Nofemela family archives
You see what I am going to suggest to you, Mr. Nofemela, is that the attack and brutal murder of Amy Biehl could not have been done with a political objective. It was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood. Isn’t that the truth?
No, that’s not true, that’s not true. We are not such things.
The journalists and documentarians and small-time film producers filed out of the van and toward St. Columba Anglican Church, a gray-brick building on the corner of NY1 and NY109 in Gugulethu, a township eleven miles outside Cape Town city center. Easy and I stayed behind, he in the driver’s seat and me on the passenger’s side. Easy was a short, compact man with butterscotch skin and a large, round, clean-shaven head. At forty-two, he had this weird ability to shape-shift. Did he look like a hardened old gangster? Yes, some days. Did he look like an adorable, harmless child? Yes, some days. In one of the photos I’ve snapped of him over the years, he is menacing, crouching on the ground with a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, his band of brothers behind him, one of them holding up a disembodied sheep’s head. But in the next, he’s curled on a small stool, cradling his infant son and smiling as his ten-year-old daughter drapes herself over his shoulder.
Easy laughed generously, from the belly, and moved in quick spurts. His features were framed by a constellation of small dark scars: from a knife fight, a stick fight, an adolescent bout with acne, that time he crashed a van into a horse in the middle of the night and then fled, that time the taxi he was riding in collided with a hatchback, and a recent incident involving a scorned ex-girlfriend with long nails and a vendetta. His arms were dotted with fading ballpoint-pen tattoos—one pledging devotion to a long-defunct street gang, one to a prominent prison gang, and one to an old flame named Pinky. The first one had become infected immediately, when he was fifteen, and his mom had spent months tending to it. After that, for a few years at least, Easy felt like it made him look particularly tough.
I liked Easy very much. I won’t pretend otherwise. But then again: precisely twenty years before our meeting in the van, on August 25, 1993, and approximately fifteen yards away, Easy had been part of a mob that had hunted down a young white American woman. If you plucked her out of that moment in history and slotted me in, my fate would have likely been the same. Easy chased her through the streets, chanting the slogan “One settler, one bullet,” and hurled jagged bricks at her. He stabbed at her as she begged for her life. She died, bleeding from her head and her chest, on the pavement just across the road.