Exactly twenty years ago, South Africa was shocked by the senseless murder of Amy Biehl. RYLAND FISHER talks to her mother, Linda, about the horror of losing a child and dedication to keeping her memory alive.
When Linda Biehl first came to South Africa with her late husband, Peter, 20 years ago, it was to bring closure to the death of her daughter, Amy, who was brutally killed in Cape Town’s Gugulethu township by a group of PAC-supporting youth.
Amy, a Fulbright scholar, was working at the University of the Western Cape. She was giving three colleagues a lift home when she was attacked. The four men convicted of her murder were released as part of a Truth and Reconciliation process. The Biehl family supported the release of the men and two of them, Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela, later worked for the Amy Biehl Foundation, started by her parents.
As she prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of her daughter’s murder on Sunday, 25 August, Linda Biehl reflects on some of her memories of Amy, and her first and subsequent visits to South Africa.
Interviewed in Cape Town this week, she also spoke positively about the changes that she has seen in South Africa over the past 20 years.
It’s been 20 years since Amy’s death. It’s like it happened yesterday. How does it feel for you?
It does feel in some way like it was yesterday. The most amazing thing for me is that I’m still here. I still come to South Africa and I still keep the foundation going. I keep the experiences we have been through in South Africa separate in many ways from Amy’s memory.
I guess I’m getting older and my long-term memory is getting better. So I am beginning to think about those early experiences of our trips here a little better than I used to. When I look back now, it sometimes seems incredulous, unbelievable, that it happened.
It’s more personal when I’m around Amy’s siblings. My grandkids are beginning to ask questions. They want to know more about Amy. We always try to keep the violent side separate from what she was involved in.
The key to this whole thing was the fact that we came to South Africa shortly after her death. The University of the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town organised that trip. A lot of people told us ‘You can’t go there!’ and we said, ‘We are going’.
What were you and Peter doing at the time?
Peter had mostly his businesses. He was a consultant for large companies. His father had actually run quite a large company in Chicago. Peter was an arty kind of person. In college he did a lot of theatre and music, and almost became professional in a singing group.
We were married during the Vietnam War and there were different reasons to get deferment. We asked for a student deferment, then a marriage deferment, just to make sure he was not drafted into the army.
We knew each other from the time we were kids, but we were married a little early than we probably planned, in August 1964, and I fell pregnant in February 1965.
How old were you at the time?
I was 21. We finished college together. I still go back to my old school and work on a human rights project with the students.
Peter obtained a Bachelor of Arts and went to work for his father’s company. Everyone else came out of Harvard Business School.
At the time of Amy’s death, Peter was doing a lot of consulting for the food industry.
The day Amy was killed Peter was up in Salem, Oregon, working with farmers trying to develop a higher pricing model for their products.
Amy graduated from Santa Fe High School in New Mexico and we rented an art gallery, which was more of my thing. We moved from Santa Fe because it was difficult to raise the children, and moved to California where I worked in retail.
I was a manager at a retail store when Amy was killed. The staff was very supportive and they brought us food for weeks. After returning from South Africa the first time, I realised that I could not work there anymore.
I undertook the next trip to South Africa by myself in February 1994.
Where were you when you heard the news of Amy’s death?
That moment is stitched in my memory for ever, visual too. I remember it clearly.
Amy was to have arrived home in a couple of days. She worked for the National Democratic Institute of International Affairs, and she had been to several African countries. She met some people from UWC in Namibia where they were doing workshops on democracy.
They encouraged her to come to South Africa. Her Fulbright Master’s proposal was on women’s role in transformation.
The day she was killed, we had been planning for her to come home, because she just received a four year scholarship to get a PhD in African Studies in New Jersey.
On the day we learnt about her death, my son Zach and I had been out shoe shopping and had lunch. It was a gorgeous summer day and everything was pretty neat.
When I walked into my house, the phone was ringing and it was my daughter Kim who had just heard from my other daughter Molly, who was working in Washington DC, that Amy had been killed.
I guess the State Department had tried to call home and, when they could not get hold of me, they contacted Molly.
They told her ‘We are trying to reach your parents’ and she said ‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’
We didn’t have a whole lot of information and I still had to get hold of Peter in Salem, Oregon.
Later on I got a call from a newspaper in Johannesburg and they wanted to know whether I was angry. I said ‘I’m not angry because Amy kept telling us about on what was going on in South Africa’. I felt like Amy was speaking through me as I remembered all the things she told me about South Africa. I remember how devastated she was the day Chris Hani was killed.
As I look back now I think that, in a strange way, she prepared us. She always told us about the potential dangers in South Africa.
The phone never stopped ringing after that. The Ambassador called, the White House called, newspapers from all over the world called. The television crews were camping out in front of our house. It was several weeks of chaos.
We had lots of people in our house and, when I look back, I think it was good. We had to talk about what happened in order to internalise it.
We had a balcony and I would go stand there almost every night looking for Amy, but of course I never found her.
Before this happened, did you consider visiting South Africa?
Oh yes, I think we properly would have. We like to travel, but it was not a good time with my son being a junior in high school, so that was the reason we hadn’t gone.
But we would have probably been there at some point.
The first time you came here was six weeks after her death?
Yes, it was six weeks.
And how long did you stay?
We were in South Africa for a little over two weeks. We were accompanied by reporters for local newspapers. We met so many people, including Tokyo Sexwale and Chris Hani’s widow (Limpho).
People from UWC took us everywhere. We went to visit projects in the townships. We went to lots of school. We did not see much of the city and its other side of the Cape. We were out and about in the communities.
We had a reception at UWC with about 250 people, which was great.
Did your children come with you?
Yes, and Amy’s boyfriend from Stanford. He was going to ask her to marry him. Actually, he was going to ask my husband. They were supposed to have dinner the night she was killed and he was going to tell Peter that he planned to ask Amy to marry him. I don’t know what she would have said because she didn’t sound like she planned to get married.
We met so many interesting people in South Africa. But everywhere we went, people wanted to know whether we were coming back to help.
We thought we should come back after the 1994 elections and find a way to honour our daughter’s memory. Again, there were many Americans who did not understand what we were doing.
Amy loved South Africa and was excited to be here. She used to circle South African obituaries in the newspapers and tell me how, when black people die, they are just a number, but when white people die, there would be an obituary with their names and even the names of their pets.
I remember when we took our son to the township, he spoke to quite a few young children and said to me afterwards, ‘If I had to live like this, I think I would be a little bit militant myself’.
Some white people in Cape Town today still find me to be a bit of a curiosity because of the time I spent in the township. Many of them tell me that they have never been to the townships.
You ended up employing two of the people who had been convicted of killing Amy. Why is this?
They were young people whose lives would have turned out differently if they were given an opportunity.
Ntobeko has just opened a laundry at his house, called Butterfly House. He lives a beautiful life with three beautiful girls. Easy is also living a beautiful life. They have shown that, given an education and opportunity, how life can turn out differently for you.
What year did your start the Amy Biehl Foundation?
We started a Foundation in the United States in 1994 because people sent us some money. We started a few projects, mainly focused on mental health issues.
Later, the head of the US aid agency, who had been Amy’s boss at another agency, offered to fund some programmes in Gugulethu. We wanted to do something for the young people in the area because young people killed Amy, mainly because of their circumstances.
We then decided to focus on small children and started a crèche. But we also consulted widely, with community organisations, about what it was that they wanted us to do.
What is the Foundation doing at the moment? Is it still focusing on the stuff that you started or has it changed focus?
We had sat down, as I said, with many community organisations and leaders, including with government people. We looked at youth development, including education, sport and recreation, health and job creation. We started to work in construction and also had a bakery.
When the then head of the Foundation died, we appointed a new CEO in Kevin Chaplain, who comes from a banking background. He is not too good on developmental issues, but he is a good fundraiser.
At the back of my mind has always been sustainability. I know of many people who have started organisations only for it to fold when they withdrew.
I don’t know how sustainable the organisation is, but I am worried that it carries Amy’s name and does not always do things with which she would have agreed. I think it is good if they are changing missions and visions, but maybe it is time for me to let go and move on.
Some of the stuff they have done recently has not really been in Amy’s spirit.
Have you been withdrawing from the Foundation?
I have in the last two years. It’s hard because I love this country and I love being involved.
How many people are on the Foundation’s payroll now?
I am not sure, but I think there are about 12 full-time people in the office and, with the after-school centre facilitators, it probably comes to about 60. We hire old women to cook soup in winter and that will probably take the total up to about 80 or 100.
What are your plans to commemorate Amy’s death?
I had not planned a lot of stuff before I arrived here, but on Sunday (25 August) at 9am we will be marching from the Columba’s Church in Gugulethu to the Caltex garage on the corner of NY123 and Steve Biko Street, where those who have flowers may place them at the memorial site.
There is also a memorial lecture to be presented by Trevor Manuel (at UWC on Tuesday 27 August) and a play at the Baxter (Mother to Mother, on Sunday 25 August). I have been concerned that Amy’s academic work at UWC has not been acknowledged.
What are some of the memories of Amy that you still carry with you today?
It’s interesting sometimes, when I look at my grandchildren and they remind me of her. I have a seven-year-old granddaughter in particular who thinks her dad (my son) is black. Amy was pushy when she was young. She wanted to do well at school, have good grades, but she also wanted to have fun. I always used to think of her as a little dynamo. She always wanted to change things. When she graduated at Stanford, she wore a cap with ‘Free Mandela’ written on it. All the other parents and children were asking ‘What is that?’
When she was 10 or 11 years old, she gave a speech about why a woman could not become the President of the United States. She had very high goals for herself. She would get frustrated if she could not solve a calculus problem and the whole house would shake.
We all grow old but she will always be remembered as this vibrant young interactive person who wanted to build a better world.
Next year we are celebrating 20 years of freedom in South Africa. How do you, as a person who has been associated with South Africa for the past 20 years, feel about our progress? Have we made any?
If you look at something very basic, you can see the change. The first time we came here in October 1993, they dropped us off at the Waterfront in Cape Town for a few hours on the day before we left South Africa.
Most of the people we saw there were whites or tourists. All the people you saw selling or in restaurants were white people. All the people in the kitchen were black people.
When you walk into the Waterfront nowadays, you can see the difference. There is a vibrant mixture of everyone. You see tourists and locals, you see upwardly mobile blacks, you see Muslims and Christians. That was not there 20 years ago.
When you go into the townships, you find more educated people living there, you find more and better cars. Yes, there is still rubbish lying around and lots of what appears to be stray animals, but that too will change.
I think South Africa with all its problems has done amazingly well in the last 20 years. DM
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