Tuesday, December 27, 2016

'We Are Not Such Things'- Truth and Forgiveness in South Africa


THERE HAVE BEEN myriad references to Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’. ‘We Are Not Such Things’ has been extensively researched. Four years to write. So many interviews and lots of travelling in the car. 

Compelling observations, mostly about poor, impoverished lives, at least by our standards. Many of us have flowing incomes. We worry about proper clothes, nutrition, a good amount of sleep, gadgets and devices, books, travel, our health. Here in poor black townships it seems to be about camaraderie no place for much of the above. So it offers plenty of interesting social observations.

Then there is the relating of the story itself. Amy Biehl. Young, rich, white. Social conscience. Works for the ANC. Believer, deep believer in human rights. Abhors apartheid and is prepared to work hard for its end, and hopefully help the transition. Prepared to bleed for it? Perhaps not. The old cliché. In the wrong place at the wrong time.
Amy Biehl. Forging an interesting path for herself. Bright. Future looks bright. Rich, white American. Wants to do something great. Could be at home in America with mother and father and friends. Plenty of people love and admire her. Surely has friends from Stanford University. Plenty of opportunities for skiing or mall shopping. Maybe reading books.

‘Momma and Betsy say
Find yourself a charity.
Help the needy or the crippled
Or put some time into ecology.
There’s a wide, wide range of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
Yet all I want to do right now is find another lover’.

(Joni Mitchell ‘Song for Sharon’)

Amy Biehl is not looking for a lover. She has her cause. Something back home is stirred in her. It is 1993. Nelson Mandela will soon be released from 27 years at Robben Island. To become President of South Africa, no less. F W de Klerk will become his Deputy. How is that for Reconciliation?

Amy Biehl is in Gugulethu. August 25, 1993. The last place you would want to be if you are white and blonde on this particular day, fifteen kilometres from Cape Town. The air is arid, thick. There is a strong menace in the air. Black people are restless and hungry for the transition that is supposed to be taking place soon. Anticipation, hunger, tension, expectation. It is their right. This should have happened a long time ago. South Africa is about to catch up, at least a little bit, with the rest of the world. But we aren’t there yet.

Amy Biehl is rich, white, American. She is driving through the township of Gugulethu on a hot day that is filled with anticipation and expectation. Many men and women have stones and sticks, some have knives. Lethal restlessness. Lots of toyi-toying. Who is this passing through on the NY1 road in her orangey yellow-coloured Mazda. It is Amy Biehl and she is driving three black colleagues in her car. Stop the toyi-toying. ‘One settler, one bullet’. Someone hurls a brick through Amy Biehl’s windscreen. Possibly another. One hits her in the face, probably her forehead. Somehow she emerges from the car and runs towards the Caltex service station. There are no police, as yet. Yet, there have been incidents on the NY1 road earlier in the day. A car overturned, set on fire. And worse…

Amy Biehl stops, bleeding, exhausted. Facing her killers, sitting down in the gravel. She is inches from death and knows it. She reportedly apologizes. ‘Sorry. What did I do?’ One of the angry mob inserts a knife blade, towards her heart…

There are people nearby who have a different view. Who see her as ‘comrade’, even though she is white. They transport her to the police station, where she dies.

Out of all this tragedy, and mess, hope. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee is meeting. Somehow four killers were found and sentenced to long term imprisonment. They are about to be pardoned. Amy Biehl’s parents insist on it. It is all part of a process of rebuilding. Those who have committed crimes of a political nature in the now former apartheid South Africa may find themselves being pardoned for their crimes and released. It is healing. But their crime must have had a political bent by nature. Amy Biehl’s parents believe their daughter died for a cause, not just a rambling blood-thirstiness. Perhaps it is easier to accept. A death not quite senseless, but mixed up in disadvantage and despair.


Most of Justine Van Der Leun’s book deals with the aftermath of the commission’s findings. The years after the building of the Amy Biehl Foundation. How two of the ‘killers’ are offered jobs in the Foundation. They become good friends with Amy’s forgiving parents. It is important to the parents. It is what Amy would have wanted. One who understood helplessness and despair.

In a peripheral sense, Justine Van Der Leun gets to know the Biehl parents, but later (well after the father has died), becomes estranged with the mother. This is partly because the book follows new paths. There are interesting little seeds planted. Her book is long for a reason. She becomes a detective tracking down new information which comes to light. It excites her. And it excites her reader. She spends many an hour with the two men who work for the Foundation, and their families. It involves a lot of time in Gugulethu and getting to know the community. It is much changed, fortunately, in the post-apartheid era.
But there is more. Were the right people found, and tried, and sent to jail, and subsequently pardoned? Did the Biehl’s give a job to somebody who wasn’t even present when Amy was killed? Should it have been, instead, his look-alike brother? And therefore, why was he sheltered from everything? Furthermore, was there another attempted lynching in Gugulethu on the same day? Why didn’t this man ever receive justice? What has been the long-term physical and psychological effects of this trauma?

The author travels far and wide around Cape Town and other parts of South Africa in her pursuit of the truth. It is a fascinating story and it has stayed with me for days, even over a week now. She is an excellent reporter/ researcher who has taken copious notes and has asked many questions and has been brave on many occasions. There are many occasions when the reader is transported to various locations. As she talks to the people of the community in their own little homes you feel like you are sitting on the floor or the couch with them. Her detailed descriptions are such that you get a strong sense of who these people are. Their history, their struggles, their poverty, the way they have forged meaning in their lives, their needs (sometimes they ask for food). The way the author edges her way into their history and subtly nudges their conscience and their consciousness to extract as much truth from them as she can. Sometimes recollections clash. She unearths the reasons for these clashes of memory, and sometimes the reasons are fascinating. Not just fading memories, but protectiveness, of other people’s lives.

This is a story that appears to have been written as events have unfolded. The events become complicated and intriguing, therefore the book takes longer to finish and the pages multiply.

It leaves me thinking about Amy Biehl travelling along the NY1, heading innocently towards a maelstrom of grief and misunderstanding, her black companions seated beside her, her mind full of ambition and hope for the changes that are about to take place in South African society.

I also think about the amazing ability to forgive. The generosity of the Biehl parents. The mindset you can forge in order to make sense of turbulent events. To ease the pain. To think and feel that your very own daughter died for a cause, not, because, as one judge perceived, ‘it was wanton brutality, like a pack of sharks smelling blood’.

And finally, I think about other people’s lives, where the place you are born and raised can determine the kind of life you lead. Where there are communities that are so generous and so tight with each other because they have to be. That the best books are those that teach us something important about life. Where we feel so much richer for reading them. That we want to share them with others after sumptuous Christmas meals in safe houses, accompanied by nice wines.


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