Just a few weeks ago a middle aged, fairly well off husband and wife from California took a poor, black South African couple from Cape Town out to lunch. The young man works for their Foundation. His girlfriend works in the Standard Bank. The Americans raise several million dollars a year in the US to support community projects in The Cape. The fund is called The Amy Biehl Foundation after their daughter. The two couples see a fair amount of each other. But this weekend the Americans were giving the younger ones a treat. Lunch in Franschhoek a one of the smarter towns in the wine district. It was a bit of R&R for everybody. A day out. A nice gesture. An ordinary event. Even though the young man murdered their daughter.
In fact he was one of four young political activists convicted of the crime. And how this American couple have become friends, and even surrogate parents, to two of those four young men is a remarkable tribute to this couple’s individual humanity and their generosity to others and to each other. But it’s also intrinsically to do with the process of reconciliation in South Africa and the life changing honesty of the young men in coming to terms with their past and creating a future for themselves and their communities. Peter Biehl says quite firmly “If it had not been for the Truth & Reconciliation Commission I would never have met these guys and never have been able to care.”
Amy was the second child of four in Peter and Linda Biehl’s family of three girls and, the youngest, a boy. A bright, popular, enthusiastic and high achieving girl, whether in diving class which she loved or ballet which she did not, she was, for her short adult life, a professional activist for the process of democracy. After Stanford University she went to work for the National Democratic Institute a non-profit US organisation supporting emerging democracies around the world. By the time she was twenty-six she had already been active in Namibia, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Burundi and Kenya and had given up her job at the Institute only when she got a $35,000 Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in South Africa. She went to study women in the transition to democracy at a crucial time just as the fifty-year race war of Apartheid was ending and the negotiations for free elections were coming to fruition. She arrived in 1992 two years after Nelson Mandela’s release from gaol. It was a perilous time. While the negotiation of a peace treaty between the ANC and the National Party was moving forward, although achingly slowly, in Cape Town and its townships of Guguletu and Kayaleitscha (spelling???), there was a great deal of danger and unrest.
Ntombeki Ambrose Peni, the slight, very quietly spoken and thoughtful young man lunching with the Biehls in Franschhoek, was seventeen when Amy arrived in South Africa. Since his early teens he had been involved with the politics of the fight against apartheid. Ousoek, the grandfather who brought him up in the township of Guguletu and a highly political man, used to tell him stories about the soldiers who were “killers” and the white people who were “the enemy”. His grandma would tell her husband not to talk that way to such a young child, but the old man just grumbled, “let the kid grow up”. By twelve years old Peni was collecting empty bottles from the shops and learning how to make them into bombs. The township where he lived was he says “like Beirut”. Black people were surrounded by daily stories of torture. Neighbours returned from gaol with their hair burnt off by acid. Someone’s brother had his neck wrung like a chicken by the Police. Peni was being reared politically on the rhetoric of the Pan African Congress (PAC), founded at the end of the fifties and which had come to prominence as the leader of the famous ‘pass law’ campaign. They were deeply critical of the ANC. By 1993 in the townships the slogan was “One Settler, One Bullet”. Operation Storm, as it was called by the PAC, set out to make the townships ungovernable. Government vehicles were to be set on fire, white people were to be stoned in the cause of returning the African land to the Africans. And on the 25 August 1993 Peni was elected chairperson of the Langa High School Unit of the Pan African Students Organisation (PASO).
And so that Wednesday afternoon two lives from different continents, one black one white, one young man and one young woman, separated by less than ten years and ironically both struggling for the same liberation of South Africa, were set on a lethal collision course.
Amy spoke every Sunday to her parents in America. Peter now says he thinks, “She was doing a really amazing job of preparation on us. I remember when Chris Hani was assassinated; I think it was April 13th of that year 1993. He was young and he was the only ANC leader who could really speak to the youth and I remember Amy saying did we realise just what was happening. She said it was about to unleash and there was real danger of a bloodbath.” Visiting the site of Amy’s death, which is marked with a simple board, Linda says that she once overheard a tourist guide describing Amy as an ‘poor innocent American girl’. “But she was very experienced in this continent, she was not naive at all” says Linda definitely. And colleagues at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) testify to the extent of her knowledge. One of them, who also said wistfully “Sometimes I just think that Amy died because that day she forgot she was white”, described her simply as “a very self-effacing activist, very experienced and a bloody good student “. “The extent and depth of her preparation of us became apparent within moments of knowing” says Peter.
This preparation – so crucial to the Biehl family’s reaction – was both very personal and political. On the one hand Linda says, “It had to do with Amy’s karma. She used to refer to her own bad luck. When she was writing her masters at Stanford on a friend’s computer an electrical fault cause a fire and all her research went up in smoke. When she got the results she needed to get into college her grandparents gave her a bike. The next day she was knocked off it by a hit and run driver. So when she was killed, in a sense you look back and think ‘Oh yes that’s Amy’. The other three aren’t like that!”
Peter emphasises the political. “”We knew her killers before we met them. We knew about the young lions in the townships and just how frustrated they were. So when she was killed I could accept her death as a reality and I could also understand it. That made me very proud of her. And the only thing I could do was sit on the plane on the way home that night and write her a letter because I could never talk to her again. For Linda and me it was just this horrible sense of loss. But it was never about anger because I believe that Amy had prepared us so thoroughly.”
For the four young men who were eventually convicted of Amy’s murder there was plenty of anger but little preparation. Peni and his childhood friend Mzikhona Eazi Nofemela who now also works in the Foundation, and two others called Mongesi and Vusumzi were equipped with little more than the sketchy training they received at the hands of the PAC’s armed wing, the APLA, and the political intoxication of the afternoons they spent after school toi-toying, as it’s called, in the streets of the townships singing the songs and picking their targets. “Shisa imoto yellow shisa, shisa motor lungu bo shisa” Easi writes on my pad in tiny neat writing. “ ‘Burn the white car. Burn the white person’s car’. The song tells you exactly what to do,” he says. The plan was to cause “minimum damage to the Africans and maximum to damage to the enemy”. It was a war and they believed they were the young shock troops.
Amy died at about five o’clock. At lunchtime there had been a meeting at Langa High School and afterwards fuelled by the speeches from the regional PAC leaders the students went in search of targets. For several hours a large group of a hundred and fifty or so, which eventually split into two, marched round the streets stoning vehicles until each time they were dispersed by police gunfire. Eventually, as Peni says, “we came down the street called NY1 to the Caltex gas station. I could see that the crowd was throwing stones at a beige Mazda.” Easi also describes complete chaos. “There was a truck and behind, Amy’s car. We heard some screaming. Students screaming ‘settler, settler, settler’. And we weren’t just shouting the slogan now; we were able to put it into action. We threw stones at her. Someone stabbed her. I saw her sit down. Then we were afraid. Everyone could see her on the verge. She stood up again and climbed over the fence of the garage. She waited until the police came and when they came she is speaking to her friends and the police. They took her to the police station. The shouting and singing drowned out the screams of her friends.” Then he repeats himself. “They took her to the police station” A pause. “That’s not a place where you can help people. Why didn’t they take her to the hospital?” He is silent.
The question hangs in the air. But Amy died in the police station less than an hour later. The Biehl’s have read the autopsy report, which identifies two possible fatal wounds – a brick that hit her on the head and a stab wound to the heart. Linda says, as we drive out to see the spot where Amy died, “That was one of the hardest things to do. I read it bit by bit. But I’d have to put it down. You have to stop and just take the dog for a walk.” As ever she talks without bitterness. “People have tried to piece what happened together. I just hope that there was something that took her out of the pain. She might have been traumatised enough by the first brick that the rest was…….” She trails off and goes uncharacteristically quiet, clutching at a hope. Usually Linda talks. Energetically and a lot. A friend of mine said on meeting her how lovely she was but he wasn’t sure he could cope if she ever took cocaine! But in the car she falls quiet. And then Peter says, after a pause, “the political belief at the time was very simple. ‘Kill a white person and you get big time attention from the media and the white oppressor. Kill a black person and no-one notices’. It’s about drawing attention to your cause.” Yet in Amy’s case, probably because of who she was, her murder was universally condemned. The ANC activist and now Constitutional Judge, Albie Sachs, himself a victim of an apartheid bomb, says forcefully. “We all immediately went to the township to make our position clear. “It was a very spontaneous and emotional response. It was a repudiation of a crazy racist attack at a time when we’d won our freedom from apartheid. We had fought for the right to be free not to have new pass laws enforced by stones.”
In the centre of Cape Town in the Amy Biehl Foundation offices, which look like any charity offices with their cheap furniture, cheery posters and buzzing activity, Peter talks about the night their daughter died. He is average height, slightly ruddy faced and wearing an old pair of docksiders. He is a quiet contrast to his extrovert wife with her slash-cut bob of blonde hair and stylish, flowing clothes. Staccato bursts of laughter erupt frequently from him. On the desk there is a fax to Colin Powell, who happens to be visiting South Africa. Since Amy’s death the Biehls have become very well connected and Linda particularly drops names liberally into the conversation. The fax to “Secretary Powell” ends “go well and listen carefully in this very complex country.” It is handwritten in the most perfectly formed script along absolutely straight lines. Peter catches me looking at it. “You must think I’m incredibly anal, right?!” Big laughter. This man has learnt what Nixon used to call the calm at the centre of the storm. But as you get to know him you begin to see that he is no automaton, but rather given to splendid and furious bouts of impatience. And getting the Foundation’s projects going in South Africa tests his forbearance to the full.
On that August night in 1993 he flew back from a meeting in Oregon, his daughter Mollie from Washington and the family came together in California. The media beat him to it. They were already on three sides of the house. So their neighbour removed a couple of boards from the fence which separated their gardens and Peter and Mollie climbed through the gap. “From the very first we decided as a family to use the media. We had Amy’s unfinished work to do. So we talked about how we needed to behave as a family. In a way we were also representatives of our country. And once we resolved ourselves as a family – the resolving was not difficult, although the evening was obviously extraordinarily difficult – once we came to our little decision, we invited the media in and in one way, shape or form they have been with us ever since.” It is this rare combination of extraordinary emotion with rational decisions that typifies the Biehls and confuses other people.
On the same night Easi knew the police would come. He went home and packed his things, contacted his girlfriend and told her that he was going to flee to the Transkei. But the police arrived at about 1am and arrested him. Peni, however, got away and for several weeks lived on the run with some other young PAC activists until returning to his grandmother’s house. When the police came he told them he was tired of running away. The trial of the four dragged on for almost a year from November 1993 to October 1994, with Peni being tried separately towards the end of that period. The causes of death were subsumed into one joint enterprise by the mob, making no distinction between the stab wound and the stoning as a cause of death. At first the four, who were singled out of a crowd of sixty or so, had confessed to Amy’s murder but then withdrawn their statements. Much of the trial was a series of wrangles about the police and coercion. “It was preposterous,” says Linda.
The four were eventually convicted and sentenced to eighteen years in prison., a severe sentence. Linda went to the trial with her daughter Mollie, but stayed for only about a week. They went mainly to support the witnesses but also just to see the four young men. “I wanted to get a sense of who they were. They had no faces as part of the mob. I tried to figure out what I felt. And actually I felt very neutral, curiosity as much as anything else. My first inclination was to know the families. Easi’s dad was at the trial. He had a navy cap on. He was always looking at me with a look of kind of wanting to say hello, but also ‘I’m here for my son’. It wasn’t appropriate to speak to him there because there were all the newspapers and cameras. But I knew someday I would speak to him.”
Peter was, and remains, totally uninterested in the trial. The Foundation newsletter at the end of 1994 welcomed the convictions with the words “We are deeply indebted to the eyewitnesses who risked their lives and the safety of their families to testify in the interest of justice. Their testimony was critical to the convictions that were achieved. In the end, South Africa’s system of justice worked….. The millions of people in the townships and squatter camps of the Cape Flats have reclaimed their right to live with the protection of a system of law that advocates human rights and dignity… in marked contrast to the injustice and indignity of Apartheid”. But Peter still says, “At first the whole thing was a kind of abstraction. I felt really empty with the loss and had no real thought of meeting anyone involved in her death. I wasn’t interested in the trial. I am not interested in punitive justice generally speaking. But when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) offered the possibility of an Amnesty hearing I was very interested indeed. Restorative justice presented me and everybody with something”
The TRC was the creation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For him it was a tool of national healing and the Act that established it in 1995 was called The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act. The TRC was also the result of a peace treaty. And as the Head of Research at the TRC until it ended, Charles Villa-Vicencio, now the Executive Director of the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, says, “It was a compromise. But those who suffered are cursed with good memory and the TRC created the time and space for South Africans to come to terms with their past and their consciences. It thrust into the public consciousness the idea of dealing with the past and wrestling with the idea of reconciliation”.
For the young men the TRC was their only possibility of getting out of gaol. There was to be no mass deal for the PAC. But they resisted it. Still politically loyal, Peni and Easi were both suspicious of the TRC as an ANC compromise. And they also wanted to know that, if their crime was to be seen as political since they had been doing the PAC’s bidding, why their leaders were not going to the TRC too. This has left a legacy of great bitterness with both of them. Peni says fiercely “The High Command of the PAC, all they did was to be in a foreign country attending university, shooting paper targets and giving instructions to us back in the country to shoot white people. It makes me mad.”
However reluctant, they nonetheless eventually applied for Amnesty. It changed their lives. “I began to distance myself from the PAC”, says Easi. “I went to the TRC because I had killed somebody and I wanted to just go and speak and take it out of my heart. Peter and Linda helped us to speak out, to take this thing out of our heart. They had come to South Africa with the vision already to forgive us. They understood the situation in South Africa. I remember seeing them at the TRC. Makhulu was wearing this marvellous ring like a banana. I was beginning to get an picture of myself…” He starts to get very agitated and passionate as he speaks. “You are a killer, you are a killer, you are a killer. But Peter and Linda didn’t come and say you are a killer. They know that I did this but the way to treat each other is to forgive. They gave me direction.”
Peni says “they have never asked us exactly about that day. They are more concerned about our personal lives. Their forgiveness has had a major role in helping me to bridge over the trauma of being involved in their daughter’s murder. It is not easy at home to come to terms with what you have done. You can come to terms with it if you view it politically, but if you view it personally you feel very difficult.” When Peter and Linda are on TV, his friends shout ‘your mum and dad are on the telly’. Do you love them, I ask? Very shyly he simply says. “A lot”
At the Amnesty hearing Peter read a statement. He quoted letters about Amy from friends and colleagues including the, by then, Minister of Justice, Dullar Omar, for whom Amy had worked at UWC. He also read from her high school diaries and her letters to the South African papers. Linda and he were at great pains to emphasize Amy’s commitment to South Africa and her role as a ”freedom fighter”. He said, “Amy would have embraced your Truth and Reconciliation process. We are present this morning to honour it and to offer our sincere friendship……. At the same time we say to you it’s your process, not ours…. In the truest sense it is for the community of South Africa to forgive its own and this has its basis in traditions of ubuntu and other principles of human dignity. Amnesty is not clearly for Linda and Peter Biehl to grant.
Peter is quietly adamant that he and Linda cannot forgive. This is not from bitterness, but because they believe that forgiveness is not in their gift. “Typically in the Christian tradition forgiveness is reserved to a man and his God. And we are not God. We feel awkward about the idea of dispensing forgiveness. Forgiveness is an unfortunate term. The end game for us is reconciliation. There are three things. If you can understand why someone wronged you, then you can accept that person and then you can reconcile. The real effort comes from building that relationship.” Linda adds, “A death can create a new sense of energy. I mean who wants ‘closure’? That ends the energy. Death doesn’t have to do that. Death can be an inspiration.” As the Chilean playwright, Ariel Dorfmann said to Peter in answer to a question from him at a public seminar in Cape Town recently, “In the sense that though every death is terrible, a death in vain is much more terrible than a death that did not lead to a community resolving its problems.”
Besides their friendship with Peni and Easi, they have often met with Evelyn Manqina, mother of Mongesi, the one who in fact stabbed Amy. And when you see the two women together, both born in 1943, you see two mothers who in different ways have lost a child. Mongesi has now pretty much disappeared into the townships having been accused of raping a young neighbour. “It is,” says Peter “not a story of which we are very proud” appearing even to shoulder some responsibility for this young man who has so disappointed his own mother.
People say the Biehl’s are extraordinary. How do they do it? Are they religious? Well they’re not. “We’re not Bible people” says Linda, “we’re ethics people.” “I hate evangelism,” adds Peter, “particularly religious evangelism. It’s a total shut down to us.” “We’re pragmatic. We want to live our lives as they’ve been dealt,” says Linda. “I love my kids more than anything. And the hardest thing about this is that Amy was my kid. And I raised her to be the person she is. I fought for that kid, so I will continue to fight for her. And when you look at Peni, I think he’s my baby. I think that Amy’s spirit is totally in him”.
So are these people extraordinary and unbelievably brave? I suspect it might bug them to be thought so. “You know,” says Peter As a mater of fact it really does. I don’t see it that way. I think my daughter and my children and my wife rather tend to bring out the best in me. I don’t think it has anything to do with bravery, it has everything to do with the quality of people who surround you.”
I ask Linda the same question. “I just wish that sometimes these people…” She pauses and tears stream down her face. “I just love these guys. I love Amy. When I look at Amy, Peni Easi I just love them. Why can’t you just be free to love people in the way you’re heart tells you?” Peter looks steadfastly on as she cries and says “People somehow always want more. ‘It can’t be that simple, they say. Come on give it to me straight. What’s really going on?’ Well we are that simple.. Go away!!” He bursts out laughing. And we all do. Because when you’re with Peter and Linda and Easi and Peni, it just seems the most obvious thing that they are together as friends. It somehow doesn’t seem strange at all. Because that way, at least Amy’s death has given them all a future. And Peter and Linda are quite sure that Amy would have loved that.