It was August of 1993, and Amy Biehl, a bright young Stanford graduate, was working in South Africa as an activist. A 26-year-old Fulbright scholar, Amy’s work was focused on ending Apartheid with a focus on creating roles for women in the constitution of the new democracy. She worked alongside colleagues who were both black and white to register new voters for the “freedom day” election of 1994, and on August 25, she was driving home with two of her black friends from the ANC (African National Congress) when her car was ambushed.
Racial tensions were through the roof at the time, and the four black youths who stopped her car near Cape Town that day had just come from a militant rally encouraging the violent end of white settlers in South Africa. Already that afternoon, cars on that particular road in Guguletu Township had been stopped, lit on fire, and vandalized whenever the angry group noticed a white driver. Despite the pleas from Amy’s friends, who told them that she was a ‘comrade’, the four young men saw only a blonde haired, blue-eyed white girl. While a crowd of angry youths cheered and shouted, “One settler, one bullet!”, Amy Biehl was dragged from her car, beaten with stones and bricks, and stabbed to death.
Amy Biehl was the first American victim of the violence of Apartheid, and this year marked the 25th anniversary of her death.
Losing a Child
No parent should ever have to bury their child, but to lose their daughter in such a brutal way was devastating for Linda and Peter Biehl. After Amy’s murder, her parents read her diaries and were inspired by their daughter’s convictions and devotion to helping South Africa transition from Apartheid to democracy. Soon after her death, they boarded a plane and flew to Cape Town.
There, in South Africa, they talked with Amy’s friends about the work she was doing, toured the towns and places where she had helped people, and using Peter’s sharp mind for business, began to help in developing the community. The Biehls formed the Amy Biehl Foundation, and helped to open shops and businesses in the community like a bakery, sports facility, construction company, and print shop, and did their part to help with the problems of unemployment and adult literacy in the area, all in Amy’s honor.
“We wanted to understand the circumstances surrounding her death,” said Linda Biehl. “We took our strength in handling the situation directly from Amy.”
The Biehls’ strength would be tested again only a few short years later.
Asking for Forgiveness
Four young men were convicted and incarcerated in 1994 for Amy’s murder, and they spent several years behind bars for their crimes. During this time, as post-Apartheid democracy rose in South Africa, tensions were still incredibly high. The black majority population finally had a voice in government, but they were still rightfully furious about the atrocities committed against them by the white-dominated government during Apartheid.
In 1995, shortly after the democratically elected government of Nelson Mandela took power, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in an attempt to heal some of the hurt and begin to build bridges of trust between black and white South Africans. Under the chairmanship of Desmond Tutu, the TRC worked to provide reparations to victims and families of victims of violence during Apartheid, and grant amnesty and forgiveness to those who committed politically motivated crimes.
Linda and Peter Biehl met with Desmond Tutu during this time, and began the long process of not only forgiveness, but reconciliation. When the men who had murdered their daughter asked for amnesty, the Biehls did not oppose it. In fact, they went to the amnesty hearing, and shook hands with the families of their daughter’s killers.
When Peter Biehl spoke at the hearing, he quoted some of Amy’s writing and said, “The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue… We are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.”
Forgiving the men who had killed Amy was liberating for the Biehls, and they went on to continue working for the South African people. But it wasn’t the last they would hear from those young men.
About a year later, they received word that two of the four men wanted to meet the Biehls. After their release from prison, they had seen the positive changes being made in their community with the end of Apartheid, but they also saw the way that things hadn’t yet changed, and wanted to help. After creating a youth club in Guguletu Township, the very place where Amy had been killed, the two men reached out because they wanted to show the Biehls what they had accomplished. Peter and Linda Biehl agreed to meet with them.
After a near lifetime of distrusting and hating white people, Easy Nofomela and Ntobeko Peni were shocked by the kindness of Peter and Linda. The Biehls understood that Amy’s death, tragic as it was, was not personal, but rather a bubbling over of political indignation directed at a broken and unjust system.
Easy Nofomela later said, “I read in the press that Linda and Peter had said that it was not up to them to forgive: it was up to the people in South Africa to learn to forgive each other… It must have been so painful for them to lose their daughter, but by coming to South Africa – not to speak of recrimination, but to speak of the pain of our struggle – they gave me back my freedom.”
Soon after their initial meeting, Easy and Ntobeko began working for the Amy Biehl Foundation.
In the 25 years since Amy’s death, the Amy Biehl Foundation has created businesses and opportunities for people in South Africa, as well as founding programs in support of the arts, music, sports, and education. In 2015, Amy Biehl High School opened in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a school which focuses on diversity and social justice education.
As for Easy and Ntobeko, they still keep in touch with Amy’s family. For years after joining the Amy Biehl Foundation, they traveled with the Biehls to speak at conferences, and Easy and Linda are currently part of an organization called The Forgiveness Project. They call Linda ‘Makulu’, which means ‘grandmother’, and Ntobeko even asked her to be a part of his wedding. Peter Biehl died in 2002, but the business knowledge he passed on to Ntobeko inspired him to become an entrepreneur, and Easy is still an active part of the Amy Biehl Foundation.
“I’ve grown fond of these young men,” said Linda Biehl. “It may sound strange, but I tend to think there’s a little bit of Amy’s spirit in them.”
Photo: Allen J Schaben/LA Times via Getty Images