Biehl book re­veals mul­ti­ple truths

A new book on the 1993 mur­der of Amer­i­can stu­dent Amy Biehl goes well be­yond the events of the early 1990s to ex­plore quin­tes­sen­tial South African truths, writes MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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JUS­TINE VAN DER LEUN frames her open­ing chap­ter with writer Elie Wiesel’s ap­par­ent – yet tan­ta­lis­ingly be­liev­able - con­tra­dic­tion that “(s)ome sto­ries are true that never hap­pened”. It is a sig­nif­i­cant pointer to the ges­ta­tion of Amer­i­can au­thor Van der Leun’s five-year search for cer­tainty about why Amy Biehl died and who was re­spon­si­ble, what it meant, and what it con­tin­ues to mean.

The re­sult is the ex­tra­or­di­nary more than 600-page nar­ra­tive jour­ney that is We Are Not Such Things, A South African Town­ship, the Mur­der of a Young Amer­i­can, and the Search for Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Her search for the truth – or, as she sought it, the mad­den­ing emer­gence of mul­ti­ple truths, un­cer­tain­ties and con­tra­dic­tions – re­veals a so­cial his­tory with this ironic qual­ity that, as she writes, “a place that had tried so des­per­ately to di­vide each facet of life into black and white… had suc­ceeded only in cre­at­ing a land where ev­ery­thing is ren­dered in shades of grey”.

“I could prob­a­bly have gone on for 10 years,” she said in an in­ter­view from New York, where she now lives, “but, ul­ti­mately, I be­came sat­is­fied that the lack of any con­crete, foren­sic truth about this case is a kind of truth in it­self. I found the quest it­self to be the an­swer.”

Van der Leun’s ac­count, ren­dered in an ab­sorbingly in­ti­mate nar­ra­tive form, is at times har­row­ing – and not only in its grim retelling of the mob killing of Amer­i­can stu­dent Biehl on Au­gust 25, 1993 – but also pro­foundly hu­man­is­ing in its prob­ing en­gage­ment with the con­victed mur­der­ers, wit­nesses, Amy’s friends, the Biehl fam­ily, po­lice­men and oth­ers in­volved in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the greater his­tory of a set­ting that charmed, puz­zled and mad­dened her, yet won her de­voted writerly at­ten­tion.

Van der Leun is, in a sense, an ac­ci­den­tal chron­i­cler of Biehl’s story. When, more than a decade af­ter the mur­der, she set­tled in Cape Town for a few years with her South African hus­band, her cu­rios­ity about the “other” city of shacks and poverty prompted a vividly re­called town­ship visit and a search for vol­un­teer work.

A num­ber of peo­ple urged cau­tion. “Bet­ter not come down with Amy Biehl syn­drome”, she re­calls be­ing told.

Van der Leun was 12 when Amy Biehl died and had “never heard of her”. Hav­ing time on her hands, she be­gan to do some re­search and be­came hooked. It was a story that com­passed “the coun­try’s timeline for the past nearly two decades: op­pres­sion, in­equal­ity, ac­tivism, protest, race-based vi­o­lence, im­pris­on­ment, free­dom, amnesty, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion”.

“This was a mi­cro­cosm of South Africa for 20 years,” she writes, “and it was the hope­ful story peo­ple liked to tell and be told.”

Amy’s par­ents, Linda and Peter Biehl, em­braced their daugh­ter’s killers and in­vested them­selves in a project of hope, the Amy Biehl Foun­da­tion.

The TRC gave amnesty to the con­victed mur­der­ers. And life in demo­cratic South Africa went on. But Van der Leun was trans­fixed and, in a way, un­con­vinced by a greater episode “so pe­cu­liar that I couldn’t stop read­ing about it”.

“When I be­gan writ­ing the book I thought I would tell ‘the Amy Biehl story’, in all its de­tail. But as that nar­ra­tive un­rav­elled and I started to fol­low dif­fer­ent threads, the book changed into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent project”, an ac­count of “the arc of re­cent South African his­tory”.

Her hope was the book would be read “first and fore­most as a story about hu­man be­ings in all their com­plex­i­ties and depths”.

“I had pre­con­ceived no­tions about the sub­jects of this book be­fore I got to know them. From my main char­ac­ter Easy Nofemela, a prod­uct of Gugulethu who went to pri­son and was sub­se­quently amnestied for Amy’s mur­der, to my guide Mzi Noji, an ex-mil­i­tant, an ex-con, an army vet, an African­ist, to the re­tired de­tec­tive Il­mar Pikker: they were all very much ‘the other’ to me.

“But when I re­ally got to know them, and in some cases their fam­i­lies, I found we all had so much com­mon ground.

She noted of his­tor­i­cal an­tag­o­nists in this story “these for­mer en­e­mies were so sim­i­lar, and they had been well-matched ri­vals. They even shared nos­tal­gia for the old days. I wasn’t ex­pect­ing that”.

With chill­ing recog­ni­tion of the hap­pen­stance of such things, Van der Leun writes early in the book: “If you plucked (Amy) out of that mo­ment in his­tory and slot­ted me in, my fate would have likely been the same.”

This is an im­por­tant hint at the larger set­ting. She be­lieved “whether Amy was killed in a po­lit­i­cal mael­strom or at the hands of petty gang­sters – which is a ques­tion the book raises – is ir­rel­e­vant in re­gard to whether her death was mean­ing­ful”.

“In some ways, peo­ple pro­jected onto her death what­ever they wanted to see and that’s still the case. But the fact re­mains Amy lived a life of mean­ing and good in­tent, and her death was a tragedy that shifted the course of South African his­tory.”

Van der Leun said she usu­ally suc­ceeded in see­ing “the big­ger pic­ture sur­round­ing Amy’s death, the pro­fun­dity that had come from the Biehls’ rad­i­cal for­give­ness of the men con­victed of her mur­der and of the men’s con­nec­tion with the Biehls – and it’s worth not­ing that two of the con­victed men reached out first, not vice versa”.

Even so, her dis­pas­sion was tested. Com­ment­ing on how she felt af­ter look­ing at crime scene photos taken on Au­gust 25, 1993, she ac­knowl­edged: “I thought: But Amy was still bru­tally mur­dered, so who cares about all the grand things that ev­ery­one has built up around her death? She re­mains dead and gone.”

Equally, as her book force­fully brings out, black anger was all too ex­pli­ca­ble. She found “black South Africans these days largely to be shock­ingly for­giv­ing about apartheid”. Twice in the text, Van der Leun refers to the “im­pos­si­bil­ity” of South Africa, a char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion she ex­panded on in the in­ter­view.

“As I stayed longer in South Africa and I read the news and I spoke to all sorts of peo­ple... I of­ten found my­self think­ing: well, how is this ever go­ing to work? What can the fu­ture pos­si­bly hold for this coun­try? The ‘im­pos­si­bil­ity’ refers per­haps to what I some­times thought of as the im­pos­si­bil­ity of Man­dela’s dream, of the hopes un­ful­filled of the TRC.”

As an outsider she was aware of an of­ten masked “ten­sion” in so­ci­ety, be­ing a coun­try in which peo­ple “wit­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence vast in­equal­i­ties day in and day out, and have done their en­tire lives, (which is) toxic, in dif­fer­ent ways, whether they are rich or poor”.

“Add to that the fact ev­ery­thing, from neigh­bour­hoods, schools, lan­guages, re­li­gions and skin colour comes with tons of bag­gage and then the cur­rent frus­tra­tions of un­em­ploy­ment, cor­rup­tion, crime – that’s a pretty nox­ious mix to live with.”

The likely fate of so many to see their dreams un­ful­filled sim­ply be­cause of who they were or where they lived “isn’t, of course, unique to South Africa, but it’s very preva­lent there”.

And then there’s the mat­ter of those sto­ries be­ing true that never hap­pened, in Wiesel’s phrase. At a cli­matic point in the book, Van der Leun con­fesses her doubt to a key fig­ure in the story and he re­sponds: “I told you be­fore: Is life, this. Full of tricks, dis­ap­point­ment. Love di­rected in the right di­rec­tion. Love di­rected in the wrong di­rec­tion. Peo­ple have two side or three or more side. Don’t lis­ten too much to what any­one is say­ing.” When asked, he con­firms he means him­self, too.

It would give away too much to pin­point this cen­tral fig­ure – but his per­spec­tive, and Van der Leun’s deft han­dling of the three-or-more-sid­ed­ness of the re­al­ity in which she im­merses her­self, make for a com­pelling ex­am­i­na­tion of an “im­pos­si­ble” South Africa’s nec­es­sar­ily un­fin­ished sense-mak­ing.


Linda Biehl, mother of Amy El­iz­a­beth Biehl (April 26, 1967 – Au­gust 25, 1993) at a memo­rial to her daugh­ter. Amy was a white Amer­i­can grad­u­ate of Stan­ford Univer­sity and an anti-apartheid ac­tivist who was mur­dered in Cape Town. The four men con­victed...

AU­GUST 6 2016

A TRC hear­ing for Amy Biehl’s killers.

Linda and Peter Biehl.

Amy Biehl

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