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
This book is a deeply cynical one and perhaps unsurprisingly, the cynicism of the book about the moral corruption of contemporary South African society is the least blameworthy aspect of the book. It is hard to understand what exactly the author is getting at here, as in many ways the author herself appears to resemble the murdered American girl at the core of the story, whose death is the subject of any number of contradictory stories that reveal some deep ugliness about South Africa’s unwillingness to confront the truth about itself. The key aspect of this book’s title is that it is a direct untruth. While the people of South Africa may not want to believe that they are such things, they indeed are, and are unwilling to face it and address. The author, whatever her hostility to right-wing politics, has written a book that legitimizes it not only in South Africa, but anywhere that hating whitey is viewed as progressive. When we judge people according to their skin and are hostile to people on such grounds, we are indeed such things, whether we want to admit it or not.
As might be expected, this is a complicated book in which nearly all of the people involved are opaque in their motivations and in their memories. The author exposes the uncertain motives of the mother of a slain leftist white activist who finds out that her woke politics do not protect her from the racist hatred of a black mob. Yet her identity as a white leftist American activist itself requires the collapsing South African state and its post-apartheid successors to find people who can be convicted of the crime, even as similar crimes from the same time go unreported and unmourned. The author’s strangely obsessive desire to find out the truth leads her to interview the same people over and over again and struggle with the contradictions inherent in the accounts, as well as with the flaws of the official story and the entitlement mentality of so many of the blacks of South Africa who see white people and NGO’s as being a means to a secure sinecure and who feel resentment when they do not profit to the extent that others do. In her commitment to expose the truth, the author reveals plenty of unpleasant truths about South Africa.
Indeed, it is hard not to wonder if psychological reasons lie at the base of why the case matters so much to the author. Amy Biehl strikes the reader as a common figure among the leftist activists of the contemporary world, someone who believes that her virtue in supporting the cause of the oppressed makes her immune to the tribalism of our contemporary world. Yet a fatal meeting with a mob of bloodthirsty savages whose cry of “one settler, one bullet” puts South Africa on the map for all the wrong reasons as being a nation that is unable to control itself in the face of social change. It is the shame of that moment, and the way that the interests of different groups of people led to the whitewashing of the ANC from a riot that killed one of their white advocates, and that led to one of the beneficiaries of the NGO established by the dead young woman’s parents having been imprisoned despite likely not having been at the lynch mob scene at all and pretending as if he was more politically active than he was. The corruption of politics, whether identity politics or the politics of entitlement or partisan politics, lies all over this story, and the more the author probes and seeks to uncover the truth, the more unseemly and unsettling it all is for the realization of any kind of truth or reconciliation in the present evil world of South Africa, the United States, or any other country.