Amy Biehl was a researcher at Stanford University. In October 1992 she was granted a scholarship to study at the University of the Western Cape, during the tension-ridden transition period which preceded South Africa’s first democratic election. Amy, the vivacious 26-year old daughter of Peter and Linda Biehl, threw herself whole-heartedly into the politics of the day. Determined and energetic, Amy made many friends on the UWC campus and in the black townships where the programme was being implemented. The months leading up to the election were at times violent and uncertain. Rival political groups fought battles for dominance and there were deaths, injuries and maimings. Houses were burnt down, and supporters of rival parties were stabbed, stoned and necklaced.
On the afternoon of 25 August 1993, Amy was driving three black friends to their home in Gugulethu, one of Cape Town’s black townships. As they made their way down the potholed road which wound between the township shacks, they ran into a large crowd of youths who were blocking the road. The crowd was returning home from a meeting of the Pan African Congress, probably the most radical of the black political parties in those pre-election days. The speeches at the meeting had been particularly virulent and strident, vilifying whites, big business and the wealthy for the sufferings of the apartheid years.
As Amy’s vehicle drew nearer, members of the crowd saw that the driver was a young white woman, and chaos broke out. They hurled stones, one of which broke the windscreen. They surrounded the car, grabbing hold of Amy as she struggled to get out. Stones rained down on her. A large brick crashed through the windscreen and hit her on the head, inflicting a serious injury. She managed to crawl out of the car and tried to run away, but members of the group pursued her, trapped her in a cul-de-sac and knifed her in the heart. She fell to the ground and died.
Two men, including Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela, were arrested and convicted for the murder. They were sentenced to eighteen years imprisonment. While they were serving out their jail sentences Linda and Peter set up the Amy Biehl Foundation in the US, to raise money for the education of township blacks in Cape Town.
Four years after Amy’s death, Peter and Linda Biehl attended a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Amy’s killers had applied to the Commission for amnesty. During the hearings, the Biehls, who had visited South Africa several times since their daughter’s death and spent many hours engaged in discussions with township dwellers, listened to the evidence of Nofemela and Peni, heard them tell about the mass bitterness and resentment which swept the townships during the early nineties, about the explosive violence which was never far away. They described, in considerable detail, the attack on Amy’s vehicle, the final moments of her life on earth.
Peter Biehl then gave his testimony, describing the deep grief and absolute devastation they had experienced, as parents, on hearing the news from distant South Africa that day in August 1993. He told of their struggle to come to terms with what had happened. Towards the end of his evidence, he did an unexpected thing. He told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that they, as parents, supported the application for amnesty by the four young men, that he and Linda believed the killers should be released and offered education and rehabilitation. The amnesty application was granted, and the Biehls thought that would be the end of things. But two of the men, Peni and Nofemela, then asked to meet them. Peni explained the request by saying “what happened was a turning point for me. I thought if this family can do such a thing, then I have something to learn”.
Peter Biehl met with the two men a few weeks after the amnesty hearing, and his wife was introduced to them a week later.
Following the meeting, a relationship slowly evolved between Amy’s parents and the two men convicted of her killing, and both were eventually offered jobs with the Amy Biehl Foundation as van drivers. They have since worked their way up the ranks, becoming highly respected leaders in a school community project which offers education, art, physical exercise and leadership programmes to township children.
The Amy Biehl Foundation now has a staff of nineteen, over 40 part-time facilitators from the community and a host of volunteer workers. It currently runs five afterschool care programmes, each hosting over two hundred students per day. Each child is given a nutritious meal and educated in life skills, art and cultural, literacy and numeracy. The Foundation runs a separate creative arts programme, which strives to achieve standards of excellence by providing children from disadvantaged backgrounds with a climate where their talents can be developed. The programme includes teaching, painting, beading, drama and dance.
Another project area involves sports development, offering youth in poverty-stricken areas coaching support and equipment, to enable pupils to engage in hockey, soccer, swimming and martial arts.
The foundation’s music programme involves volunteers from the UCT School of Music, Artscape, Bishops College and the Hugo Lambrecht Music Centre, making time available to give instruction in brass, choir, guitar, marimbas, recorders and violins, to township kids. A donation of thirty-five laptops have also enabled the foundation to launch a computer literacy programme, which moves from school to school, in rotation, enabling different groups of up to twenty students at a time to familiarise themselves with basic computer skills through the E-Learning Programme and Microsoft.
There’s also a project aimed at greening the landscapes of participating schools by planting trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. Schools are thus rendered more beautiful, and students taking part in the project are also given an enhanced sense of pride, and respect for the environment. School-based environmental education programmes have also been initiated. To date over a thousand students have attended workshops on topics such as plant cultivation, the dangers of global warming, pollution and recycling.
Another project is the Youth Reading Role Models project, which was established in 1998 and currently runs in fifteen primary schools. Grade sevens are given an opportunity of reading aloud to Grade ones, improving the reading and speaking skills of the older child while giving their younger school mates exposure to positive role models and mentors. Parental involvement has provided an added dimension, with unemployed parents coming to the Grade one classrooms to read to the students.
It’s not easy to fully understand the manner in which Peter and Linda Biehl embraced those responsible for the tragic death of their daughter. All of us who have children cannot really comprehend the mental and emotional waves which enabled them to not only come to terms with their daughters death, but to reach out to her murderers. Two lessons stand out, however, when one considers the Amy Biehl story. Firstly, there is no such thing as a crime, transgression or offence so heinous that it cannot be forgiven. Secondly, the work now being done by the Amy Biehl Foundation, which is described above in the briefest of terms, shows what can be achieved, what benefits can flow, if we turn away from the hate and resentment caused by past wrongs, and step towards the beacon of forgiveness.