Amy Biehl: A story of South Africa and restorative justice (weaving together two articles which tell of the prism and power of love in and for South Africa)
Associated Press file photo
Linda Biehl, the mother of Amy Biehl, holds up a photograph of her daughter during a visit to South Africa in April. Two of the men who killed Amy Biehl 15 years ago as part of a mob now work for the charity established by the Biehl family after the murder.
A journey of forgiveness for Amy Biehl's killers
The spirit of the Santa Fe High gradudate who died in South Africa 15 years ago, lives on through the good works of the men who took her life
Scott Kraft | Los Angeles Times
GUGULETU, South Africa — Easy Nofemela remembers the evening Amy Biehl died. Coal stoves from township shacks had painted the twilight a sooty gray, signaling a cold winter's night. Guguletu's main road throbbed with cars. And a mob of angry young men was looking for symbols of white rule to destroy.
Then the men spotted Biehl, blond and blue-eyed, as she drove through the township in her yellow Mazda.
"Rocks were being thrown at Amy's car. She got out and ran, and she was stabbed right over there," Nofemela says, pointing to a patch of grass next to a service station, now planted with a small cross.
Nofemela remembers, 15 years later, because he was part of the mob that killed Amy Biehl.
What he didn't know then was that Biehl, a 1985 graduate of Santa Fe High School, was hardly a symbol of apartheid. She was a Fulbright scholar studying the lives of women in South Africa, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate with a plane ticket for home the next day, from an airport 10 minutes away.
Nofemela was one of four men convicted of murder for their actions that day. They spent nearly five years in prison before being granted amnesty in 1998 by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Today, Nofemela, a compact 37-year-old with a shaved head and a quick wit, is himself the father of a young girl. And, in an improbable tale of forgiveness and redemption, he and Ntobeko Peni, another of the men convicted of the murder, now work for the charity Biehl's parents founded here after she was killed.
It's a paradox that Linda Biehl, Amy's mother, prefers not to examine too closely. "I don't know how it happened," she says, sipping coffee at a cafe near her home in Newport Beach, Calif. "I'm not going to begin to try to analyze it."
An engaging woman of 65 with a blond bob and a warm smile, she has grown exceptionally close to her daughter's killers. "Easy and Ntobeko are fascinating, and I really do love them," she says. "They have given me so much."
Former Santa Fe residents Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter, launched the Amy Biehl Foundation in 1994 with donations that arrived, unsolicited, from strangers moved by the news of their daughter's death. Today, it runs after-school programs for youngsters in Guguletu and other sprawling townships and squatter camps that took root during the apartheid era on the Cape flats, about 10 miles east of Cape Town.
"Our mission is to develop hope for children in the township and give them a future," says Kevin Chaplin, the foundation's managing director. "Our focus is to keep them away from violence and give them healthy activities that tap into the creative side of the brain."
The foundation operates out of donated office space in downtown Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain, the picture-postcard city's most recognizable landmark. Tributes to Amy Biehl and the foundation's work paint the walls. A small television set loudly plays old news show clips of the Amy Biehl story — her brutal death, her killers' convictions and amnesty, and the foundation's work — for newly arrived volunteers.
Chaplin, 45, left a successful career with a South African bank two years ago to oversee the charity, which runs township classes in music, dance, drama, crafts and sports. "It's been the most satisfying time in my life," he says.
But it is the Biehl family's story, he says, that resonates here and abroad.
"A lot of people can't even forgive the little things," he says. "If the Biehls can forgive four young men for the death of their daughter, then there's no excuse for the rest of us. So we try to teach Amy Biehl's story — that good can come out of tragedy. We're really teaching people about the power of forgiveness."
Amy Biehl had been in South Africa for nearly a year on that August evening in 1993, and she had amassed a wide circle of friends that included some of the nation's leading human rights lawyers and politicians as well as township dwellers.
The country was nearing a historic moment. Nelson Mandela was free after 27 years in prison, and his liberation organization, the African National Congress, was poised to take control of the country in the first free elections, scheduled for April 1994. Blacks, who outnumbered whites 5 to 1, would be allowed to vote, ending four decades of white minority rule.
Biehl had been researching constitutions and bills of rights around the world for ANC leaders writing a new constitution, and she also was involved in voter education efforts. She had just completed her Fulbright paper, "Women in a Democratic South Africa: from Transition to Transformation."
But it was a bloody, restive period. Right-wing whites were engaged in a desperate effort to retain power. Four months before Biehl's death, a white supremacist had killed Chris Hani, the leader of the ANC's armed wing, in the driveway of his home. Radical black groups, such as the Pan Africanist Congress, or PAC, were waging their own violent war against symbols of white rule, unconvinced the government truly intended to give up power and suspicious of the ANC's plan for a multiracial democracy.
Biehl was driving three friends to their homes in Guguletu that day when a mob numbering about 80 spilled out of a PAC rally chanting the group's battle cry: "One settler, one bullet." In the group's argot, settlers were white people, specifically the white Afrikaners who had settled in South Africa 350 years earlier and, in 1948, had imposed the system of racial separation known as apartheid.
Witnesses later identified three members of the mob, including Nofemela, 22 at the time, and they were charged and convicted of murder. The prosecution asked for the death penalty, but the judge sentenced them to 18 years in prison, saying he thought they had a chance to become useful citizens "despite the fact that they have shown no remorse." A few months later, Peni, 20 at the time of the attack, was arrested, convicted and also sentenced to 18 years.
The Biehls thought the matter had been put to rest. But in 1997, four years after their daughter's death, the killers applied for a pardon before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Biehls asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, head of the commission, what they should do. "Just come and speak from your heart and talk about Amy," he said.
At the hearing, the men admitted their role in the killing and said they believed they had to kill whites to make South Africa "ungovernable" and force the government to relinquish power.
The Biehls read from their daughter's high-school valedictory address and spoke of her commitment to helping South Africa. But they extended an olive branch too. "We come to South Africa as Amy came, in a spirit of committed friendship," Peter Biehl said. "And make no mistake about it, extending a hand of friendship in a society which has been systematically polarized for decades is hard work at times."
Outside the hearing, in a hallway, the four men approached the Biehls and shook their hands. "They asked our forgiveness," Linda Biehl recalls. "Ntobeko told us that when we forgave him, he didn't care if he got amnesty because he had just been freed."
All four men won pardons in 1998, and a year later, the Biehls went to see Nofemela and Peni in Guguletu. "It was like an adoption," Linda Biehl recalls. "That kind of broke the barrier. These were just children who didn't have a chance to have a childhood."
She's never asked them what role they played in Amy's death; she assumes they did little more than throw rocks, as they acknowledged during their amnesty hearings. (Another of the four men had confessed to stabbing Amy. He wound up back in prison on an unrelated charge.)
After prison, Peni had started an organization to help former anti-apartheid activists acquire skills such as bricklaying and plumbing. He persuaded the Biehl Foundation to help support his organization and, three years ago, he went to work there. He was recently promoted to program director and supervises a core staff of 16, including Nofemela.
Nofemela emerged from prison to become a community leader in Guguletu, where he battled for government money to replace shacks and bring plumbing and electricity to the township. A one-time soccer star, he now coordinates the foundation's instruction in soccer, cricket, field hockey and other sports — some at his old school, a few dozen yards from where Biehl died.
Surrounded daily by tributes to Biehl, the two men wrestle with conflicting feelings about their role in her death. There is remorse over the loss of an innocent life, but there also is an abiding sense that their motives were pure.
"Deep down, it was very difficult for me to accept my own actions," Peni recalls, sitting in his small office at the foundation. A baby-faced man of 35, Peni now has two daughters, ages 1 and 5.
"I felt I had contributed to a new South Africa and that what I did was done for a political reason," Peni says. "But when I thought of Amy ..." He pauses. "One has to find peace within in order to live. It's odd, but sometimes people who offer forgiveness are so disappointed when the people they forgive cannot forgive themselves. This foundation helped me forgive myself."
Nofemela is a charismatic quipster who is hugely popular with the youngsters. He doesn't see his role in Biehl's death and now her legacy as a contradiction. She was, like him, a victim of a political war.
"I will never run away from the fact that the oppression in South Africa was done by white people," he says. "The white man was prepared to kill. I also was prepared to kill.
"But now, I'm working to spread the spirit of Amy."
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Linda Biehl & Easy Nofemela
On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998 the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after serving five years of their sentence – a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, a charity which dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence. Since Peter Biehl’s sudden death in 2002, Linda still regularly returns to Cape Town to carry on her work with the Foundation.
When we heard the terrible news about Amy the whole family was devastated, but at the same time we wanted to understand the circumstances surrounding her death. Soon afterwards we left for Cape Town.
We took our strength in handling the situation directly from Amy. She was intensely involved in South African politics and even though the violence leading up to free elections had caused her death, we didn’t want to say anything negative about South Africa’s journey to democracy. Therefore, in 1998, when the four men convicted of her murder applied for amnesty, we did not oppose it. At the amnesty hearing we shook hands with the families of the perpetrators. Peter spoke for both of us when he quoted from an editorial Amy had written for the Cape Times: “the most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue,” he said. “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.” A year after Easy and Ntobeko were released from prison, an anthropologist who was interviewing them sent us a message to say they’d like to meet with us. They were running a youth club in Guguletu Township where Amy had been killed and wanted to show us their work.
We wanted to meet them. It wasn’t about pity or blame, but about understanding. We wanted to know what it would take to make things better. Some time later we took them out to dinner. We talked about their lives and our lives, but we didn’t ask about the past. We were all looking to the future.
I’ve grown fond of these boys. I enjoy them. They’re like my own kids. It may sound strange, but I tend to think there’s a little bit of Amy’s spirit in them. Some people think we are supporting criminals, but the Foundation that we started in her name is all about preventing crime among youth.
I have come to believe passionately in restorative justice. It’s what Desmond Tutu calls ‘ubuntu’: to choose to forgive rather than demand retribution, a belief that “my humanity is inextricably caught up in yours.”
I can’t look at myself as a victim – it diminishes me as a person. And Easy and Ntobeko don’t see themselves as killers. They didn’t set out to kill Amy Biehl. But Easy has told me that it’s one thing to reconcile what happened as a political activist, quite another to reconcile it in your heart.
When the anthropologist suggested bringing the Biehls to meet me my mind was racing. This was a big challenge. I’d grown up being taught never to trust a white person, and I didn’t know what to make of them. Yet I thought that if I could meet them face to face, then perhaps they might see that I was sorry. “Yes, bring them,” I said.
The next day Peter came to Guguletu. I was very nervous, but my first thought was to protect him because there was violence outside. I took him inside my home and told him about the youth club. He was very interested and said Linda would love to see what me and Ntobeko were doing.The next day they came bringing us T-shirts and tickets for Robben Island. I remember Peter was very strong and Linda very shy.
Later we became involved in the Amy Biehl Foundation because they were having trouble in Guguletu where they ran a community baking project. Crime had become so bad in the township that drivers were getting shot at every day. We helped them by talking to the community.
Not until I met Linda and Peter Biehl did I understand that white people are human beings too. I was a member of APLA – the armed wing of the PAC. Our slogan was “one settler, one bullet”. The first time I saw them on TV I hated them. I thought this was the strategy of the whites, to come to South Africa to call for capital punishment. But they didn’t even mention wanting to hang us. I was very confused. They seemed to understand that the youth of the townships had carried this crisis – this fight for liberation – on their shoulders.
At first I didn’t want to go to the TRC to give my testimony. I thought it was a sell-out, but then 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. I decided to go and tell our story and show remorse. Amnesty wasn’t my motivation. I just wanted to ask for forgiveness. I wanted to say in front of Linda and Peter, face to face, “I am sorry, can you forgive me?” I wanted to be free in my mind and body. 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.
I am not a killer, I have never thought of myself as such, but I will never belong to a political organisation again because such organisations dictate your thoughts and actions. I now passionately believe that things will only change through dialogue. People are shocked I work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. I tell them that I work here because Peter and Linda came to South Africa to talk about forgiveness.
Peter was a lovely man. He kept us all happy. It was a great shock when he died. He would say to Ntobeko and me, “I love you guys. Are you happy, guys?” He tried to avoid things that would upset us. He was like a grandfather to us.
Amy Biehl Foundation Trust
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