Photography by Brian Moody
On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998 the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after serving five years of their sentence – a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, a charity which dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence. Since Peter Biehl’s sudden death in 2002, Linda still regularly returns to Cape Town to carry on her work with the Foundation.
When we heard the terrible news about Amy the whole family was devastated, but at the same time we wanted to understand the circumstances surrounding her death. Soon afterwards we left for Cape Town.
We took our strength in handling the situation directly from Amy. She was intensely involved in South African politics and even though the violence leading up to free elections had caused her death, we didn’t want to say anything negative about South Africa’s journey to democracy. Therefore, in 1998, when the four men convicted of her murder applied for amnesty, we did not oppose it. At the amnesty hearing we shook hands with the families of the perpetrators. Peter spoke for both of us when he quoted from an editorial Amy had written for the Cape Times: “the most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue,” he said. “We are here to reconcile a human life which was taken without an opportunity for dialogue. When we are finished with this process we must move forward with linked arms.”
A year after Easy and Ntobeko were released from prison, an anthropologist who was interviewing them sent us a message to say they’d like to meet with us. They were running a youth club in Guguletu Township where Amy had been killed and wanted to show us their work.
We wanted to meet them. It wasn’t about pity or blame, but about understanding. We wanted to know what it would take to make things better. Some time later we took them out to dinner. We talked about their lives and our lives, but we didn’t ask about the past. We were all looking to the future.
I’ve grown fond of these young men. They’re like my own kids. It may sound strange, but I tend to think there’s a little bit of Amy’s spirit in them. Some people think we are supporting criminals, but the Foundation that we started in her name is all about preventing crime among youth.
I have come to believe passionately in restorative justice. It’s what Desmond Tutu calls “ubuntu”: to choose to forgive rather than demand retribution, a belief that “my humanity is inextricably caught up in yours”.
I can’t look at myself as a victim – it diminishes me as a person. And Easy and Ntobeko don’t see themselves as killers. They didn’t set out to kill Amy Biehl. But Easy has told me that it’s one thing to reconcile what happened as a political activist, quite another to reconcile it in your heart.
When the anthropologist suggested bringing the Biehls to meet me my mind was racing. This was a big challenge. I’d grown up being taught never to trust a white person, and I didn’t know what to make of them. Yet I thought that if I could meet them face to face, then perhaps they might see that I was sorry. “Yes, bring them,” I said.
The next day Peter came to Guguletu. I was very nervous, but my first thought was to protect him because there was violence outside. I took him inside my home and told him about the youth club. He was very interested and said Linda would love to see what me and Ntobeko were doing. The next day they came bringing us T-shirts and tickets for Robben Island. I remember Peter was very strong and Linda very shy.
Later we became involved in the Amy Biehl Foundation because they were having trouble in Guguletu where they ran a community baking project. Crime had become so bad in the township that drivers were getting shot at every day. We helped them by talking to the community.
Not until I met Linda and Peter Biehl did I understand that white people are human beings too. I was a member of Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress. Our slogan was “one settler, one bullet”. The first time I saw them on TV I hated them. I thought this was the strategy of the whites, to come to South Africa to call for capital punishment. But they didn’t even mention wanting to hang us. I was very confused. They seemed to understand that the youth of the townships had carried this crisis – this fight for liberation – on their shoulders.
At first I didn’t want to go to the TRC to give my testimony. I thought it was a sell-out, but then I read in the press that Linda and Peter had said that it was not up to them to forgive: it was up to the people in South Africa to learn to forgive each other. I decided to go and tell our story and show remorse. Amnesty wasn’t my motivation. I just wanted to ask for forgiveness. I wanted to say in front of Linda and Peter, face to face, “I am sorry, can you forgive me?” I wanted to be free in my mind and body. It must have been so painful for them to lose their daughter, but by coming to South Africa – not to speak of recrimination, but to speak of the pain of our struggle – they gave me back my freedom.
I am not a killer, I have never thought of myself as such, but I will never belong to a political organisation again because such organisations dictate your thoughts and actions. I now passionately believe that things will only change through dialogue. People are shocked I work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust. I tell them that I work here because Peter and Linda came to South Africa to talk about forgiveness.
Peter was a lovely man. He kept us all happy. It was a great shock when he died. He would say to Ntobeko and me, “I love you guys. Are you happy, guys?” He tried to avoid things that would upset us. He was like a grandfather to us.