Linda Biehl, 70, the mother of the activist killed while studying in South Africa, is ready to turn the Amy Biehl Foundation over to locals. The question is: Can she let her baby go?
CHAPTER 1: LETTING GO, AGAIN
“Don’t cry, Mom.”
Over the last 20 years, those words – the last she heard from her daughter Amy – have been soft pillows for Linda Biehl. In times of crisis, they’ve also been crutches. When she’s fatigued, they’ve even jump-started her spirit.
Amy Biehl, was 26 when she was stabbed and stoned to death on Aug. 25, 1993 by an angry mob in the black township of Gugulethu, about 10 miles north of Cape Town. She was to return to Newport Beach two days later. Instead, Amy’s ashes came home a week later, in an American Airlines bag.
Linda’s chest heaved when she saw that bag. But even in that moment she remembered the words she heard from Amy, 10 months earlier, when her second-born child boarded the flight to South Africa:
“Don’t cry, Mom.”
So she didn’t.
A few months later, Linda stared straight, dry-eyed, during Amy’s murder trial, as young freedom fighters danced outside the courthouse chanting the words her daughter heard in her last moments: “One settler, one bullet.”
In 1997, Linda spoke in a clear, strong voice as she testified with her husband, Peter, during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings — when the four men convicted of Amy’s murder sought amnesty.
When the mother of the man who stabbed Amy hugged Linda and wept, it was Linda who gently rubbed the woman’s back, saying: “Don’t cry.”
And in the years since, as she’s publicly told Amy’s story numerous times and relived the details of Amy’s death, Linda Biehl has heeded her daughter’s final, affectionate command:
“Don’t cry, Mom.”
Linda and Peter Biehl could have stayed home, paralyzed by anger. They could have demanded death for their daughter’s killers. They could have opposed amnesty.
Instead, over the decades, they’ve embraced Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the four men convicted of Amy’s murder. They hired their daughter’s killers to work at the Amy Biehl Foundation, the nonprofit they started a year after Amy’s death.
“I wouldn’t call it forgiveness,” Linda says. “It is a process; it’s reconciliation.”
Forgiveness, she says, is a one-time act, dumped like a bucket of water over the head of a contrite sinner. But reconciliation flows gently, like a river, cleansing, rejuvenating and enriching every inch of space it caresses.
The forgiver and forgiven might never cross paths again. But reconciliation evolves over time, requiring those individuals to supplant hate, anger and mistrust with love, compassion and understanding.
When the Biehls visited South Africa six weeks after Amy’s death, they came to believe that Amy’s real killer was apartheid.
Over the century of South Africa’s existence the white minority government had forced blacks, Muslims, Indians and the mixed-race “colored” populations out of Cape Town and into segregated suburbs, townships and squatter camps to live in tin shacks without water, power or sewage. Apartheid-era South Africa was an alternate universe where whites ruled simply on the basis of race.
The men who killed Amy didn’t see the person – the Stanford graduate, the Fulbright Fellow, the feminist, the civil rights activist. All they saw was a white face.
Linda and Peter started the Amy Biehl Foundation in 1994 hoping to undo that hate.
At first, they weren’t sure how. The organization, which had Amy’s already well-known name, was a magnet for small donations, mostly from sympathetic Americans. But as the couple visited the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken townships of Cape Town – where travel web sites still tell visitors not to go – they listened to locals and gained their trust. The foundation brought reading groups, craft workshops and after-school programs to townships that were — and still are — ravaged by violence.
Today, the Amy Biehl Foundation helps more than 2,000 children and teens in and around Gugulethu, the township where Amy was murdered. Nofemela now works as the foundation’s township tour coordinator and driver; Peni, is the organization’s programming manager.
For Linda, it’s been a long and at times lonely process. Peter, her husband of 38 years, was her partner in reconciliation and in creating the foundation. She lost him to colon cancer in 2002.
So now, 20 years after Amy’s death, Linda, 70, is trying to solve a new puzzle.
She wants to hand over the foundation to those for whom it was intended – the South African people. Over the last year, she has been pulling away, cutting down on her trips and giving the foundation’s Managing Director, Kevin Chaplin, more authority over administrative matters.
If letting go means the foundation might lose her daughter’s name, Linda can live with that.
Amy, Linda explains, never wanted to be a name anyway.
During Amy’s time in South Africa, white deaths were eulogized in newspapers in great detail, with names of the deceased and loved ones and, sometimes, even their dogs included in the obituaries. Black deaths received no such notice. Public records simply logged their passing with a number.
“If anything happens to me, I want to be a number,” she told her parents during one of her regular phone calls home.
Linda also believes giving up the foundation would relieve her three other children – Kim, Molly and Zack – from the burden of responsibility or potential liability. Linda would like to see the foundation forge ahead with its own identity and purpose, without the Biehls.
“I think this needs to happen for the sake of sustainability,” she said.
But it’s not so simple.
Linda gave birth to Amy and, in a different way, to the Amy Biehl Foundation. Losing the first was unimaginably painful; giving up the second isn’t going to be easy.
Linda lies awake in bed wrestling with a puzzle.
Will the foundation survive and remain financially viable? If she’s out of the picture, how will it be run? Can the educators and activists from the townships, who formed the foundation’s backbone, continue their good work?
If Linda leaves, will Amy’s spirit stay?
CHAPTER 2: SOMETHING WORTHY OF AMY
Amy Biehl’s legacy began with her death.
On Aug. 25, 1993, Amy’s mustard-yellow Mazda sputtered along the crowded road that cuts through the heart of Gugulethu, a dusty township 10 miles north of Cape Town.
As the beaten-up car made its way slowly through traffic, a group of young, black men looked on, their eyes narrowing as they saw who was driving:
A white woman.
Amy Biehl was 26, a Fulbright Scholar from Newport Beach and a researcher at the University of Western Cape. She was giving three co-workers – two black women and a colored man — a ride to a civil rights meeting in the township. She was planning to drop them off and press on to her farewell dinner at a Cape Town restaurant. Two days later, she was scheduled to fly home.
When someone spotted Biehl’s blond hair and fair skin, the crowd’s murmurs turned into a full-throated roar. Within moments, a storm of rocks pelted the tiny Mazda. A brick shattered the windshield.
The brick hit Biehl on the head.
She stopped the car, opened the door and stumbled out. As she tried to run to a nearby Caltex gas station, one of the 75 men in the crowd tripped her. Dazed, almost certainly confused, and bleeding profusely, Biehl fell on a narrow patch of grass.
Chants filled the air. “One settler, one bullet.”
Her co-workers shouted at the assailants.
“She’s a friend, a comrade!”
But the men on the street ignored their pleas.
Soon, a man called out for a pocket knife. The rocks came down even harder.
Biehl’s eyes began to close and her head drooped as the young man, in a single quick move, drove a blade into her heart.
• • •
Amy Elizabeth Biehl was born April 26, 1967, in Santa Monica. The second of four children, young Amy was a runner, a swimmer, gymnast and diver. Her parents gave her a nickname:
She was an overachiever in the classroom. In 1985, Amy was valedictorian at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, N.M., and that same year she went on to study International Relations at Stanford. The Biehls moved to Newport Beach.
The only time Amy really spent in Orange County came in the next few years, during college holidays. She’d come home, to Newport, and run, Rollerblade and sometimes party at The Blue Beet by the Newport Pier.
At Stanford, the International Relations major developed a passion for a particular place – South Africa. She wore a cap with the words “Free Mandela” to her graduation in 1989.
Stanford also is where Amy met her boyfriend, Scott Meinert. She was captain of Stanford’s diving team and he was a member of the school’s strong basketball team. The couple talked politics over many dinners.
“She was fun, engaging, so easy to talk to and really cute,” Meinert says. “But she was so genuine; no hidden agendas.”
Meinert also graduated in ’89, and went on to study law at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. Amy went to work in Washington, D.C. and, in 1992, landed in South Africa on the Fulbright. Her area of interest was women’s rights.
• • •
Amy picked the Community Law Center at the University of Western Cape because, at the time, it was Cape Town’s only mixed race campus.
Her timing, many would say later, was impeccable. Apartheid had just ended, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and the country was less than two years from its first democratic election.
She was there to witness – and in her small way assist – the nation’s painful rebirth.
Ebrahim Rasool, who today is South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States, was, in the early 1990s, an active member of the African National Congress, the political party that led the fight for equality in South Africa. At the time, he also worked at the University of Western Cape where ANC leaders were drafting the new Rainbow Nation’s Constitution.
He described Amy as a “blond-haired, blue-eyed presence” feverishly writing notes at every ANC meeting.
“Amy Biehl was not just an observer or a curious American,” Rasool said. “She chose to be part of the energy that would give birth to a new South Africa.”
Amy and Meinert were still a couple, and they talked, every day, often for hours. Meinert said Amy described South Africa as “the worst place to be a woman.” And when Chris Hani, the South African Communist Party leader and anti-Apartheid activist, was assassinated (in April, 1993) Meinert said Amy was “scared to death,” for her own safety and, he said, because people might no longer “open up to her, or let her engage them.”
A month before she died, Meinert and Amy took a trip to Paris. They stayed 10 days, walking the city and talking about their future. Amy had a four-year scholarship to start a doctoral program specializing in African Studies at Rutgers.
Meinert planned to ask Amy to marry him when she got home.
• • •
Like every parent who has lost a child, the Biehls weren’t ready to lose Amy.
When the phone rang, Linda had just returned from shoe shopping with her then 16-year-old son, Zach. She remembers that news vans soon encircled their Newport Heights home.
Peter Biehl, a business consultant, was in a meeting with a group of farmers in Salem, Ore., when his secretary interrupted him.
But even in their darkest moment, the Biehls were laying groundwork for something bigger than misery.
On the flight home, Peter wrote a letter to his daughter – knowing she would never read it.
“How can we possibly express the depth of our pride in you and in your accomplishments throughout your incredibly short but productive life? I desperately wish that we could have had the chance to greet you, to hold you and to tell you what your life and example have meant to us on your planned return.”
But the letter will have to do, he wrote. It was but “a poor substitute for the real thing.”
“I believe you were destined to be someone very important in this world and it kills me to know that you have been robbed of your potential and that our world has lost a force for such good.”
And then the father made a promise to his daughter or, perhaps, to himself.
“We will try hard, as a family, to do something important in your name and in your great honor. Something worthy of you, in your memory. We will always love you and we know we shall see you again, one day.
With our constant and enduring love,
CHAPTER 3: HEALING WITH TRUTH
Like alcohol poured over an open wound, the six years of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a searing process meant to cleanse, disinfect and heal an entire nation.
Ostensibly, the hearings would sort out if some of the violence committed during the last years of apartheid rule was essentially political, to be treated as acts of war. The Commission could grant amnesty to imprisoned blacks and whites, including some who had committed unspeakably horrific crimes, as long as those people were deemed politically motivated and truthful.
But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
Family members learned details of their loved one’s final moments in open court. Killers reluctantly came face-to-face with their victims’ mothers and spouses and children.
At times, it seemed South Africa itself was on trial.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, appointed by President Nelson Mandela to chair the hearings, was not immune to the suffering in that room. He wept with victims and provided words of comfort. Still, Tutu held firm to his belief that while the truth might hurt, it eventually would heal.
And when the Biehls told Tutu they wanted to support the process, he invited them to come back to South Africa, and to speak from their hearts.
They did exactly that, in part, for Amy.
Weeks before she was stoned and stabbed to death by a mob of anti-apartheid activists, Amy had a letter published in the Cape Times newspaper, explaining her support of the amnesty process. Racism, she wrote, had hurt both blacks and whites in South Africa, and reconciliation might hurt too. But, she added, the “most important vehicle” toward reconciliation is honesty.
The Biehls were ready to start that dialogue.
So were the four men convicted of killing their daughter.
During the hearing of July 8, 1997, four young men sat hunched over a table, about 10 feet from Linda and Peter Biehl.
Easy Nofemela, Ntobeko Ambrose Peni, Mongezi Manqina and Vusumzi Ntamo had each been sentenced to 18 years in prison.
To be granted amnesty, each had to face the Biehls, speak the truth and apologize.
It was the first time the Biehls heard any of their voices.
Peni was 17 when he helped kill Amy. Hours before her death, he had been named chairman of his high school’s branch of the Pan African Students Organization, a well-known anti-apartheid group.
After the meeting where he’d been named leader of the group, Peni and about 200 others left school, marching, dancing the toi-toi and chanting a slogan they’d recently learned from their adult leaders:
“One settler, one bullet.”
They were young. They were oppressed. And their leaders had urged them to make the nation ungovernable.
Peni, 21 by the time of the hearing, told the Biehls he had no idea that Amy was on their side – fighting for the rights of the oppressed. Her gender didn’t matter. Her status didn’t matter.
They killed only because of the color of her skin.
The transcript shows Peni begging the Biehls for forgiveness.
“For me, it would be starting a new life.”
Nofemela, Manqina and Ntamo apologized to the Biehls as well.
But as contrite as they seemed, the tension rose when a prosecutor asked Nofemela if he and his comrades were like sharks circling their prey.
“We were no such things,” he shot back.
Linda and Peter Biehl wanted to make sure the men could see and hear them clearly.
They took turns speaking. When one spoke, the other held up placards showing pictures of Amy – the champion diver, the valedictorian, the civil rights activist.
As the parents spoke, the man who plunged a knife into Amy’s heart leaned forward, concentrating.
Amnesty, Peter Biehl told them, was not for him or his wife to give.
“In the truest sense, it is for the community of South Africa to forgive its own. And this has its basis in the traditions of… human dignity.”
A year after Amy’s death, the parents had started the Amy Biehl Foundation. Peter Biehl promised that the organization would continue to push back against violence by teaching kids to read and providing job training.
Biehl told the commission that he and his wife were there to support the process, just as Amy had.
“We are here in a sense to consider and to value a committed human life, which was taken without opportunity for dialogue,” he said.
“When this process is concluded, we must link arms and move forward together.”
Nofemela, Peni, Manqina and Ntamo were granted amnesty. They walked out of prison free men.
CHAPTER 4: THE MEETING
They’d all seen each other twice before.
The first time was in 1994, when Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni were among the four men convicted of murdering Amy Biehl.
The next time was in 1997, when Easy and Ntobeko and the two others were again in a courtroom, this time to be granted amnesty for their crime.
Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, had flown to South Africa for both ordeals. They’d seen their daughter’s killers, breathed the same air; looked them, briefly, in the eye.
But this third meeting, in August of 1999 – six years to the month after Amy’s murder – was different.
Amy’s father came to a leaky, cold shack, 10 miles north of Cape Town, at the request of her killers.
Peter, without Linda, sat, stiffly, near Easy and Ntobeko, and near the woman who had brought them all together, a UC Berkeley anthropologist named Nancy Scheper-Hughes.
In theory, the men were supposed to talk.
But the anger and the guilt and the fear were too powerful. Nobody could think of anything to say.
So, for several minutes, they sat in silence.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes had been in South Africa when Amy was murdered in August of 1993.
She’d taken part in the march, a day after the murder, in which hundreds of people walked through Gugulethu, to the spot where Amy died. She’d carried a sign that day that said “Stop the senseless violence.”
And Scheper-Hughes had seen the blood and hair still stuck on the white fence, an image she couldn’t – and still can’t — shake.
So it wasn’t odd that a year after Amy’s death Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist whose career has been spent studying endangered and often dangerous children, flew back to Cape Town, to attend the trial of the men accused of Amy’s murder.
That’s when she first met Linda and Peter Biehl. That’s when she first saw Amy’s killers.
That’s when her hand shook.
During the trial, a witness described for the court how Amy groaned and pleaded with her assailants before she died. As the witness spoke, many of the young men in the gallery cheered and applauded.
Scheper-Hughes jotted down her observations with shaky fingers, horrified.
Then she took note of Easy.
The slight young man had been quiet throughout his trial. But as he heard the crowd – his supporters — cheering at the horror of Amy’s last moments, he whipped around in his chair.
“What’s wrong with you?” he yelled at them. “Why don’t you all get out of here!”
Somewhere under all those layers of anger, hatred and resentment, Scheper-Hughes thought, there it was: a beating heart.
Ntobeko was the first to ask.
“Will you arrange a meeting for us with Amy’s parents?”
“What would you want to tell them?” Scheper-Hughes asked.
“I want to tell (Peter) that, to me, he’s a ‘hero father’.”
It was July, 1999, and it was the anthropologist’s first face-to-face meeting with Easy and Ntobeko.
Ntobeko explained that his days turned dark after he received amnesty and returned to the township.
He couldn’t sleep. He did not want a girlfriend. He couldn’t focus on work or study. He hid from people.
“If you could get Peter Biehl to listen to me, and to release me from my suffering, that would be good; as good as bread.”
Easy was the only one who seemed to know what to do.
In the shack with the silent men, Easy walked around serving hot tea. He stuffed the gaps in the door with paper, cloth, anything he could find to keep the winter day’s hard rain from pouring in.
He was trying to make Peter comfortable.
Finally – Scheper-Hughes can’t remember who spoke first or what, exactly was said – the men started talking.
They told Peter about a youth group they had started in the township. They brought out photos of the hikes they’d taken with the young people up and around Table Mountain, an iconic landmark in Cape Town.
They showed off T-shirts they’d designed for the children.
At the end of that meeting everyone was smiling — including Peter Biehl.
Within two years, Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni were working for the Amy Biehl Foundation.
• • •
On a bright morning, in August 2013, Scheper-Hughes walked into the Cape Town office of the Amy Biehl Foundation.
She was visiting the foundation Linda Biehl soon might give up. She was meeting with the men who’ve become the foundation’s public faces.
Ntobeko emerged from his office and took long, quick steps to greet Scheper-Hughes. Before she could speak, Easy ran up too, locking her in a bear hug.
“It’s The Bridge!” Easy said, grinning widely.
“Yes, The Bridge,” Ntobeko said, joining in the hug.
It was their first meeting in 14 years. She was amused by the new nickname.
“The Bridge, that’s cool!” she said, taking it in.
“I did not dream that the men would work for the Foundation,” she added later. “I did not expect them to forge this beautiful relationship with the Biehls and become an example for the entire world.”
Easy says he’s grateful that Scheper-Hughes arranged that initial meeting, tough as it was.
The two other men who received amnesty in the Biehl case – Mongezi Manqina and Vusumzi Ntamo – never met the Biehls, and their lives have turned out differently. In 1999, Manqina was arrested and sent back to prison for raping a disabled teenager. Ntamo went to prison on an assault charge.
Easy believes he and Ntobeko were rescued by the Biehls. And Scheper-Hughes, he says, made it possible.
“I think she saved our lives.”
CHAPTER 5: THEY STILL KNOW AMY
As a van bearing the foundation’s logo – black and white fingers, linked in unity — made its way down the dirt road, a group of children ran behind, yelling “Amy Biehl, Amy Biehl!”
Twenty years after her death, everybody in Gugulethu still knows Amy Biehl’s name.
The elementary school kids who play soccer for Foundation coach Anele Nyemkezi certainly know it.
”Amy’s spirit is still here,” says Nyemkezi, who was 8 when Amy was murdered.
“We keep the children safe from the kind of violence that took Amy’s life.”
Luyanda Nkangezi knows the name too. He was targeted by gang violence until he started dancing – and teaching – for the Amy Biehl Foundation.
Nkangezi also is known – by the township’s children.
The kwaito and pata pata dance classes he teaches at Siyasingiza Primary School, one of the many elementary schools that double as the foundation’s after school sanctuaries, are always crowded and noisy.
Every afternoon, Nkangezi rearranges the tables and chairs in the classroom with chipped walls, patchy ceiling and broken windows. Class begins when the kids rush in and he turns on the boom box and the sound of Kwaito fills the air.
Kwaito is Gugulethu’s heartbeat — relaxed, catchy; punctuated by melody, percussion and deep bass lines.
To the uninitiated it sounds like hip-hop on Valium.
As the young dancers move to the rhythm they raise their eyebrows, shrug their shoulders, dust off their sleeves. Kwaito is all about attitude.
Then Nkangezi’s assistant, “Koko,” takes the floor. The man in the brown T-shirt, khaki pants and floppy hat gets big cheers.
The students rap, shouting out lyrics in their native Xhosa. And Koko dances – eyes half-closed, lips curled in a hint of a smile, like a dervish caught in a mystical reverie.
Before he was a dancer Koko was a gangster.
“But… he realized that being a gangster — there is no future, no life,” Nkangezi explained
The statistics of violence in Gugulethu suggest he’s right. Between 2005 and 2010, the township of 340,000 people averaged 140 murders a year, roughly one shooting or stabbing or deadly beating every other day.
But in that Amy Biehl Foundation class, Koko and Nkangezi are safe – and so are the kids.
Gumboot is a traditional dance in Xhosa culture, a spiritual, upbeat way for a community to celebrate.
And Bahle Xakana, 12, knows Gumboot.
As he walks out of class, a stranger asks him what Gumboot is. Instead of saying a word, he demonstrates. He taps a neat pattern with his knee-high, rubber boots; he slaps his chest and thighs to beat out sounds and rhythms.
Then he smiles.
Bahle lives in a brick house in Gugulethu with his parents, four sisters and three brothers. He believes the Amy Biehl Foundation’s after-school program, where he’s learned Gumboot, is good for him. His parents, he says, don’t return from work until later in the evening and the center provides a safe space.
“If you stay in the street, you smoke, you get in trouble.”
But learning his culture and feeling safe has given him something he might not otherwise have – a vision of a strong future.
Bahle wants to be a lawyer.
“But I have to train. I have to study a lot.”
He believes Amy Biehl came to South Africa to help black people. He recounts the story of her death, his face contorted in disgust.
“She was a good person who wanted to help us,” he says. “I never understood why they had to kill her.”
Samkelo Sam, 8, is just learning to speak English. He is in a literacy program, something that supplements what he gets at school.
He holds up his fingers to show how many favorite books he has, but he can’t count them all.
“People are always fighting on the street, I see that,” he said. “Here, I read and I work on computers. I don’t have to worry about the fighting.”
Ndilisa Lomba, 24, knows what it takes for kids to survive in the township. That’s why the former student decided to return as a teacher.
She was raised by her grandmother. They had one pair of shoes in the house, Lomba wore them to school during the week and Grandma got them on Sunday for church.
When she turned 16, Lomba worked three restaurant jobs to support her brothers and grandmother. She wanted to quit school, but she was an after-school kid at the Amy Biehl Foundation and the teachers there would not let her give up.
She finished high school and went on to university, the only member of her family to do that.
Now, she teaches an HIV Education class at the foundation.
“I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve overcome the challenges,” she said. “I know I can help these kids.”
The children in her class call her “Mom.”
Amy’s mom, Linda Biehl, points out that the foundation has earned its place in the community through adversity.
In the late 1990s, the foundation started a small business enterprise called Amy’s Bread.
The operation shut down when the delivery driver was killed and the bakery was burned down. The foundation eventually licensed the bread to other bakeries. Now, Amy’s Bread – along with Amy’s Wine — is sold at the Pick’n’ Pay Supermarkets, the largest grocery chain in Cape Town, and a portion of the proceeds go to the foundation.
In 2001, the foundation opened a golf driving range, a bold venture in a country where the popular sports are cricket and soccer. But the driving range closed in 2005, after the foundation lost U.S. government funding.
“As an American, it takes a while for you to understand the culture,” Linda Biehl said. “You don’t know what works and what doesn’t. You know that you are not immune from the violence and danger faced by the people in the townships.
“We had to learn to focus on what worked instead of what didn’t work.”
What worked, and what still work, are things that Amy might’ve applauded — after-school programs, free afternoon meals; reading, crafts and HIV education. Community gardens cared for by students have thrived, replacing litter and garbage with herbs and vegetables. Children still get rides from the townships to the suburbs for activities like karate, surfing and ballet.
None of it was possible before the Amy Biehl Foundation. Much of it might end if the foundation disappears.
The key to these programs’ future, says Linda, is to teach community leaders and activists to run these programs.
“We must train these people who have may have no knowledge of computers, math or bookkeeping, without patronizing them, and without imposing our ideas.”
CHAPTER SIX: THEY CALL HER MAKULU
Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni are very different men.
Easy is loud. Ntobeko barely talks.
Easy wears a baseball hat, a leather jacket and a perpetually mischievous smile.
Ntobeko wears a buttoned-down shirt and a sweater vest. He races in and out of meetings, his face locked in an expression of deep concern.
Easy sways to reggae as he drives into the township for a day’s work; Ntobeko works quietly, his office door closed.
Yet these different men grew up on the same street in Gugulethu. They played for the same soccer team; went to the same grade school.
As teens, they were both committed to the cause of ending apartheid in South Africa.
And, today, they’re united in another common purpose – to perpetuate the legacy of the woman whose life they were responsible for ending.
When Easy came to work for the Amy Biehl Foundation, he and Ntobeko were told to build a small changing room for kids playing in the foundation’s sports programs.
Years later Easy pointed to the result of their assignment, a small, green building at the edge of a large field.
“Ntobeko and I had no idea what we were doing,” he said. “But there’s that building, still standing.”
Easy grew up in a different Gugulethu. As a child, he was told to put liberation before education. The white man was the enemy.
He rioted on the street with the other children, tossing gasoline bombs at police trucks and hitting white cops with slingshots. Little Easy could identify a gun by the sound of the gunshot, like a child in another part of the world might know a cartoon by the first notes of its theme song.
Like all the township’s school kids, Easy carried a jar of petroleum jelly in his lunch box. He would slather it on his face when police fired tear gas into his classroom, which was often
Easy was 8 when he saw white police kick open his front door and beat his father. He was barely 12 when he saw police shoot his cousin and drag him through the streets by his legs, face down. He’ll remember that bloody face until he dies.
“We were ready to die for the cause,” he said.
“And yes, we were ready to kill for the cause.”
The first time Linda Biehl got a glimpse of Ntobeko’s complex psyche was at a speaking engagement in Langebaan, a seaside town on the Western Cape.
Linda and Peter Biehl and Easy all spoke first.
When it was Ntobeko’s turn he stood, walked to the microphone, and told the crowd this:
“I was in prison. But I did not lose my soul.”
Then he sat down.
Linda has seen many sides of Ntobeko.
She’s seen the man who locked the door and stayed in bed just so he’d feel secure. She’s seen the man who would get excited as he talked to high school kids in New Mexico about military tactics. She’s seen the relaxed side of him at home with his wife and three children, or at dinner with her and Peter.
And she’s witnessed his gentler side, as he counseled teens about forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Ntobeko just rouses these emotions in people with his intensity and, sometimes, with his silence,” Linda said.
But, over the years, Linda has learned that his silence has a purpose.
It’s how he’s lived so long.
When he talks about Linda Biehl, Easy loses his swagger. He hunches his shoulders and speaks in hushed tones, as if he just walked into church on a Sunday morning.
Both he and Ntobeko call Linda “Makulu,” Xhosa for “grandmother” or “wise woman.”
“Without Makulu, there is no Amy Biehl Foundation. Makulu is all about care and love. All she wants is for people to live their lives peacefully and embrace each other.”
Their relationship is based on truth, Easy says.
For example, he has never told the Biehls he’s sorry.
“What does that mean? What’s that worth?” he asks. “They’re just words. They mean nothing. I wanted to say it with my life, my actions… The passion I bring to this work.”
Linda Biehl, he says, is his mentor and moral compass.
“When I see Makulu, I remember I’m still doing the right thing, I’m walking on the right path,” he says.
“When I see Makulu, I feel free.”
He clutches his chest and closes his eyes as he says: “I love her too much.”
For Easy, reconciliation is no 12-step process. Violence is a part of his culture, but so is forgiveness.
“Like stick fighting,” he says.
Stick fighting in the townships is a traditional way to solve disputes, and it often gets intense and bloody. But when the fighting is over, the men go the river, wash their wounds and hug it out.
Easy says he thinks of Amy every day – not as a victim, but as a comrade who set him free.
Ntobeko survives with quiet efficiency.
He’s the foundation’s program manager. But he also runs a taxi and meat delivery service in the township. He sells soft-serve ice cream from a cart. He recently turned part of his garage into a Laundromat.
He named this latest venture “The Butterfly Laundromat.” In July, when he took Linda to show it to her, he cast a meaningful glance in her direction and asked: “You see, Makulu? You see what I called it?”
She was puzzled. He had to remind her about the reference.
Years ago, Ntobeko came to the United States and traveled with Linda to Texas, where they met a couple, close friends of the Biehl family, who had recently lost a baby grandson. In memory of the baby, the couple went to a local garden and released butterflies.
Since then, Ntobeko has named all his business ventures after the butterflies.
“I never realized until that moment how deep of an impact the butterflies had on him,” Linda said later.
Over the years, the connection between Linda and the men who killed her daughter has never wavered. If anything, it’s grown.
If she gives up her foundation, she’ll see Easy and Ntobeko less. They’ll still be like family, but family separated by continents and oceans and culture.
At a mall in Cape Town, Linda watched Ntobeko use a debit card to buy a birthday gift for his daughter. The routine moment nearly brought Linda to tears.
“He could’ve been in prison,” she said. “He could’ve been dead.
“But he dared to be different. He chose to be brave and reconcile with us.”
CHAPTER 7: TURMOIL, INSIDE AND OUT
Linda Biehl sits with a thud in her office chair.
She’s just stormed out of a meeting with three members of the Amy Biehl Foundation’s board of directors. The usually calm woman is shaking with anger.
She’s frustrated with many changes at the charity; the incessant branding of Amy’s name, the lack of respect, the loss of purpose. But at this moment – the morning after a memorial service marking the 20th anniversary of her daughter’s murder — the specifics are hard to spit out.
Through tears, the woman who never cries repeats, over and over… “Amy would not approve.”
Linda Biehl flew to Cape Town in August to do two things – memorialize her daughter and come up with a timetable for pulling her family’s name away from the South African branch of the Amy Biehl Foundation.
A focus of her ire is Kevin Chaplin, a banker who since 2006 has run the foundation’s day-to-day operations.
Chaplin has solidified fundraising and extended the group’s reach in South Africa. But in the process, in Linda’s view, he’s changed the relaxed nature of the organization and mistreated the people who started its South Africa operations in 1997.
Biehl says Chaplin, without asking, recently removed the word “violence” from the foundation’s mission statement, claiming the concept touches raw nerves with South African fundraisers.
It touches a nerve for Biehl, too.
“We can’t shy away from that word,” she said. “It’s how we came to be.”
But the latest example of Chaplin’s overreach, she told the board, was an email he’d written detailing his new vitamin business. He’d signed the letter with his foundation title: “Kevin Chaplin, Managing Director, Amy Biehl Foundation.”
As Chaplin protested, saying he wasn’t trying to use Amy’s name to boost his new venture, Linda spoke over him.
“You have no respect for me and my family,” she shouted.
Then, minutes later, in her office, she added:
“(Amy) is not a brand. Her blood was spilled here.”
In South Africa, the name Amy Biehl has come to symbolize many things – sacrifice, forgiveness and hope, among others. Chaplin would like to keep using it.
He came to the foundation a year after the death of the group’s original managing director, Solomon Makosana, and a year after U.S. government aid all but dried up. At a time when Linda was struggling to keep the foundation afloat, he brought a thick Rolodex and strong fundraising skills to the job.
Chaplin, over the years, connected with local businesses (a grocery chain and a local G.M. dealer, among others) to help solidify the foundation’s finances.
Better finances means more help for more kids.
This year, the Amy Biehl Foundation figures to help about 2,000 children at five after-school centers in desperate neighborhoods near Cape Town. The total budget is about $600,000. Chaplin’s goal is to open two new centers and grow big enough to serve about 3,000 children, an expansion that could bump the budget closer to $1 million a year.
“What we’re doing here is working,” Chaplin says. “The foundation’s staff and I are united in our purpose, which is to continue serving these underprivileged children.”
Chaplin says his relationship with Linda Biehl has soured only over the last year or so, though he doesn’t know exactly why.
“I can only think that this is 20 years of pent-up grief making its way out.”
The question swirling in Chaplin’s mind is this:
Can the Amy Biehl Foundation stay in business without Amy Biehl?
Linda Biehl thought a plan was in place.
Chaplin and his team of administrators reluctantly agreed that they would hire a public relations consultant to work on a new name, a new logo and new promotional materials. Going forward, the organization would use the new name, but it would include the tag line “formerly known as the Amy Biehl Foundation.”
Biehl said she would be happy if the foundation continued to use her daughter’s story and keep its money-making “Amy” brand bread, wine and bracelets.
“When we had the discussion, I left with a good feeling. I thought we were going to have a smooth transition.”
But the blowout at the board meeting, in late August, raised doubt all over again.
Yes, she wants her family disconnected with the South African version of the foundation.
But then she thinks of the people who helped early on, men like Easy and Ntobeko, and a handful of others who grew up in the townships and helped the foundation make inroads into that world. Those people, she fears, won’t last long if she goes away.
So, she comes up with a new plan.
Maybe she could move to Cape Town for a few months and get an apartment here; maybe she can help right the ship.
In her head she believes it’s time to let go. But her heart isn’t listening.
“This is my baby.”
CHAPTER 8: THE BEGINNING OF AN END
In many ways, Amy Biehl had prepared her family for South Africa, talking about it over regular Sunday night phone conversations and in heartfelt journal entries.
“I learned from her that doing work in South Africa can take a lot out of you,” Linda said.
But Amy’s death opened doors and hearts in ways Linda couldn’t have imagined.
She still grieves for her daughter. But she also looks back at the decades since Amy’s murder as a painful sort of gift.
This gift has shown her a world, and roused feelings, that she otherwise might never have seen or felt.
She’s witnessed a Xhosa circumcision ritual. She’s seen sheep slaughtered. She has a friend with whom she can joke about the number of goats he gave as lobola, or dowry, to his future bride’s father.
“I am thankful for Amy for all of this,” Linda said.
“I’ve learned to cherish her gift.”
Over the decades, Amy’s three siblings have supported their parents’ mission with the Amy Biehl Foundation. They’ve admired their parents’ unexpectedly close bond with two of Amy’s killers, Easy and Ntobeko.
But now their feelings are changing.
Zach Biehl, 36, lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. He was 16 when his sister died, and came of age watching his parents build and maintain the foundation. He believes that staying connected to the foundation is, for his mother, partly a grieving process for her daughter and husband.
Still, he believes that Linda should step away from the foundation.
“It’s so hard because so much of (our family) has gone into this.”
Both Zach and his sisters believe that South Africa claimed not only Amy, but also their father, Peter, who neglected his own health as he spent the last years of his life nourishing the foundation. He died in 2002 of colon cancer.
Kim, 48, who lives in Florida with her husband and daughter, says she and her siblings cannot realistically handle foundation work, which can entail multiple trips a year to South Africa and hundreds of hours talking with potential donors and others. They have young children, jobs, family commitments.
Though Kim believes Amy’s memory and spirit remain in South Africa, in part because of the foundation, she’s also unhappy with the foundation’s increasingly commercial focus.
“Amy was my sister, and it’s hard for me to look at her as a commodity.”
Zach says even if Linda steps away from the South Africa branch of the foundation, the family can remain supportive of its original mission, and the core members who helped run it from the start.
“Personally, I will forever offer my help to them.”
But he says watching his mother constantly clash with the man who manages the foundation’s day-to-day operations, Kevin Chaplin, has become frustrating.
“This has become a job for people. It’s more about fundraising and titles now. It’s no longer about helping people.”
He believes it’s been that way for awhile.
It’s time for the Biehls to move on.
Back in Newport Beach, as she walks by the pier where Amy enjoyed running and rollerblading, Linda plans the last leg of her journey with the foundation.
She considers her three children, and says Amy would want her brother and sisters to live their lives.
She also considers the fate of the foundation, which has become something akin to another child.
“I will always love it… be attached to it.”
But it’s time to let the foundation leave the nest.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
She’s listening to Amy.
Linda says that as much as Amy loved South Africa she always saw herself as an outsider.
In her final Fulbright paper, Amy wrote: “The same people who want your assistance will turn around and criticize you for being an outsider… While South Africa… can be a difficult place at times, the benefits of such a unique experience are well worth the difficulties.”
Still, the makulu in Linda worries.
She worries about the people who helped her start the foundation, about the people the foundation helps.
It’s going to be an extended good-bye, she says, but it is a good-bye.
She sees her future, stateside, with grandkids and soccer games and family dinners.
But even without the foundation, Linda won’t let go of her life in Cape Town — strolls down the open-air market of St. George’s Mall; chats with her hairdresser; seeing Easy and Ntobeko.
Cape Town is where Linda still feels Amy. She can’t – she won’t – give that up.
In 1993, a week after Amy’s death, her remains came home in an American Airlines bag. Others had the chance to see Amy’s body, battered as it was, but Linda, her mother, did not. She had only ashes. She’s kept them.
Someday, she’ll scatter them in the Western Cape. She says that’s where they belong.
But it’s not happening now.