GUGULETHU, South Africa – Easy Nofemela cradled a big bunch of white lilies in his arms as he walked next to the woman he calls “Makulu” – which means grandmother or “wise woman” in his native Xhosa.
He had driven the van that carried Linda Biehl to Gugulethu, a predominantly black township about 10 miles from Cape Town, where her daughter Amy, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar and Stanford graduate, was stabbed and stoned by an angry mob of young black activists exactly 20 years ago. It was just two days before Amy Biehl was set to return home to Newport Beach.
The death of the white civil- and women’s-rights activist at the hands of black men was a punch in the gut to a nation that already was in turmoil.
Nofemela was a member of that mob and one of four men convicted of killing Biehl.
But the man who accompanied Linda Biehl on Sunday was as gentle as the whiff of white clouds that settle on Cape Town’s Table Mountain. This is a man with honey-colored skin, whose laugh is pitched between a child’s giggle and an old man’s guffaw, who breaks into a song and dance for no reason and whose manner is very much like his name – Easy.
As they walked together to a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of her daughter’s death, Biehl talked about how much the long-stemmed flowers reminded her of Amy, “the blond lily.” Linda Biehl said when she first visited Gugulethu after her daughter’s death, the white lilies – which grow wild around Cape Town – were resting against the fence where her daughter had collapsed, broken and bloodied.
A pensive Nofemela stood at Biehl’s side in front of the black granite cross erected in memory of her daughter at the Caltex gas station in Gugulethu. Gathered there for an informal commemoration were about 40 of Amy Biehl’s old friends, community members and others who had been touched by her story.
The hustle and bustle in the township continued around Biehl’s memorial.
Families walked to church. Commuters stopped to pump gas. Drivers honked as they maneuvered around the crowds and cars. Across the street, men tossed meat on a grill.
Life – colorful, unfiltered and unbridled.
Just the way Biehl used to like it, her mother said.
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION
Placing her hand gently on Nofemela’s shoulder, Linda Biehl stood in front of her daughter’s memorial, talking about reconciliation and forgiveness – a process that, for the Biehls, initially was triggered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But later, as Biehl explained, it became an intensely personal and spiritual journey.
“This is not exactly about one person forgiving the other,” said Biehl, 70. “This is about reconciliation, and it takes more than one person to reconcile.”
Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the four men who were granted amnesty after being sentenced to 18 years in prison for Amy Biehl’s murder, now work with the Amy Biehl Foundation, which was established in 1994 by Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter. The Cape Town-based nonprofit offers after-school programs in Gugulethu and surrounding communities that now serve more than 2,000 children.
On Sunday morning, Biehl walked to Amy’s memorial holding the hand of Peni’s 3-year-old daughter, Avile. The little girl, who was dressed in a purple dress with pink ribbons and red-buckled shoes, skipped as she held her Makulu’s hand. Her father, programming manager at the Foundation, watched quietly as he stood in the back.
Linda Biehl told the gathering that Amy’s special gift was the ability to bring diverse groups of people together, even in a South Africa that was ripped apart and plunged in racial violence. Today, her legacy is about the lives that have been touched and changed, she said.
“Amy wanted to be a number, not a name,” said Linda Biehl, a former couture manager at Fashion Island’s Neiman Marcus. “Her wish was to be just as anonymous as the thousands of black people who died and were mere numbers.”
Mzi Noji, 44, a resident of Gugulethu who came to the memorial, said he, like Nofemela, was a member of the militant Pan Africanist Congress whose slogan at the time was “One Settler One Bullet” – the slogan Amy Biehl’s killers yelled as they attacked her yellow Mazda the evening of Aug. 25, 1993.
Biehl, who was giving a ride to a few friends including two black women, was hit by a brick that shattered the car’s windshield.
She stopped the car and stumbled out, trying to explain to her assailants that she was their “comrade.” But she was stoned and stabbed by the impassioned mob whose young members were just leaving a party meeting.
Noji said he was not present when Biehl was killed, but that he was one of many youngsters who were indoctrinated in schools, invited to underground meetings and taught to hate and hurt white people.
“We need gatherings like this to heal, to step away from violence as a community,” he said.
Noji became emotional as he pointed to the memorial, calling it “one of the biggest lights in Gugulethu.”
“This is a light that becomes brighter slowly, with every passing day,” he said. “Amy’s story has helped us understand violence.”
TURNING BAD TO GOOD
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement that Biehl’s death “came at a time when South Africa was reaching a watershed moment in its history” – when Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, the nation’s constitution was being written and the first democratic elections were about to be held.
“We are unbelievably fortunate that Amy had already passed on her love of this country to her family,” said Tutu, who worked closely with the Biehls during the amnesty hearings. “Through the efforts of Linda and Peter, and all of you who have been involved with the Amy Biehl Foundation over the years, many people in Cape Town’s townships have been empowered and uplifted.”
He said community development programs such as those run by the foundation must demonstrate independence, strength and sustainability to survive and flourish.
“Linda, I have no doubt that God and your daughter are smiling down on you right now,” the archbishop said. “You have borne a heavy burden these past years and have done so with joy and unbridled enthusiasm.”
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, brought three signs she carried during the march to Gugulethu the day after Amy Biehl’s death. One of the signs read: “Stop the Senseless Violence.”
“I’ve spent many years thinking about what violence really means,” she said. “Amy’s death was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. But it ended in 20 years of solidarity and redemptive forgiveness.”
Scheper-Hughes said Nofemela and Peni have “lived their apology” without having to verbalize it. She was the “bridge” that linked the Biehls to the two men when she facilitated the initial meeting between them 14 years ago.
But she never imagined that their relationship might blossom into one that has become a shining example of reconciliation, she said.
“They’ve done the impossible,” Scheper-Hughes said. “They’ve turned bad into good. They have transformed each other as well as the lives of thousands of children and families.”
A DAY TO REMEMBER
For Linda Biehl and her friends, Sunday began with a church service at St. Columba Anglican church, barely 100 feet away from Amy’s memorial. More than 100 congregants packed the brick-walled sanctuary, lit by pumpkin-shaped chandeliers and filled with the fragrant smoke of incense.
Congregants sang in Xhosa, a language of the native tribes, which is punctuated by clicks. They danced to the sound of drums and bells. Linda Biehl swayed to the music and rhythm as Peni’s daughter, Avile, played on her lap, stroking Biehl’s well-coiffed blond hair and trying on her pink scarf.
Lumka Tebese, the church’s warden, says she was working her night shift at the local hospital for the mentally ill when she heard news of Amy’s death.
“We were hurt and angry because it was senseless and unnecessary,” she said. “For me, it is as fresh today as it was the day it happened.”
Tebese, who spoke during the service, addressed Linda Biehl personally.
“Amy was a hero,” she told her. “That was the plan of God, that she must die the way she died. We thank you for being you and showing peace and love to us and to all South Africans at large. Today, we are honoring Amy every, single day.”
A few feet away from Amy’s memorial, children wearing yellow Amy Biehl Foundation T-shirts played the marimbas – something they do every day as part of their after-school program run by the foundation.
After their performance, they lined up in front of the memorial.
Each child laid a long-stemmed, white lily against the black granite stone.
The Legacy of Amy Biehl
Amy Biehl was a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar, civil rights and women’s rights activist whose life was cut short when she was stoned and stabbed to death by a mob of black anti-Apartheid activists as she was driving through the black township of Gugulethu. Amy’s parents – Linda and Peter Biehl of Newport Beach – started a foundation in her name in 1998.
They also supported amnesty for the four men accused of killing Amy, and two of those men came to work for the Amy Biehl Foundation. The foundation, which has served as an example of reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa, is at a crossroads, with lingering questions about its future.
Orange County Register reporter Deepa Bharath and photojournalist Ana Venegas traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, during the 20th anniversary of Amy Biehl’s death to examine the Biehls’ journey over the last two decades, their reconciliation with the men convicted of killing Amy and the foundation’s future.
This project was sponsored by an International Reporting Fellowship administered by The International Center for Journalists and funded by the Ford Foundation, the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation and United Airlines.
Aug. 25, 1993: Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar and Stanford graduate from Newport Beach, was killed by an angry mob of black anti-Apartheid activists in the township of Gugulethu, about 10 miles outside Cape Town.
Oct. 25, 1994: Three men, Vusumzi Ntamo, 23; Mongezi Manqina, 22; and Easy Nofemela, 19, were convicted of Biehl’s murder.
June 1995: Ntobeko Peni, 19, was convicted of Biehl’s murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison as were the other three men.
1996: The four men applied for amnesty from the South African government acknowledging for the first time that they carried out the slaying and that they were following the dictates of the anti-apartheid movement heralded by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
July 8, 1997: Their case was heard. Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl of Newport Beach, attended and testified at the hearing, speaking in support of reconciliation and dialog.
July 28, 1998: The men were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and were to be released after serving five years in prison
1999: The Biehls met two of the men – Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni – who were convicted of killing their daughter
2001: Nofemela and Peni were hired by the Amy Biehl Foundation to work on a hotel construction project. They have continued working on several programs at the Foundation.
March 31, 2002: Peter Biehl died of colon cancer at age 59.
Present: The Amy Biehl Foundation serves more than 2,000 children in and around Gugulethu through various after-school programs.