In 1993, Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old Stanford University graduate, was a Fulbright scholar in South Africa, researching black South African women’s struggle for equality in the new constitution being negotiated to replace the apartheid government. On August 25, she left her office to drive three colleagues home to Gugulethu, a township outside of Cape Town. En route, she was spotted by a mob marching through the township, shouting ONE SETTLER, ONE BULLET. The crowd stoned Amy’s car, smashing the windshield and windows.Amy, too, was struck in the head and began to bleed heavily. Unable to drive any further, Amy got out of the car and ran towards a garage across the road, pursued by her attackers. Although her colleagues tried to protect her, shouting that Amy was a comrade, the mob continued to stone and stab Amy, who died as a result of her injuries.
Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, responded to their daughter’s death by taking up her work to support South Africa’s transition to democracy. Unexpectedly thrust into the international spotlight, and in spite of their own shock and grief, they struggled to say nothing that would jeopardize South Africa’s pending elections—the first multi-party elections since apartheid. Later, they established the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, a nonprofit organization that creates and runs after-school job-training, art, sports, nutrition, and other educational programs in Gugulethu and other townships surrounding Cape Town. When the young men convicted of their daughter’s death applied for amnesty through South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), five years later, the Biehls did not oppose it. Instead, they attended the hearing and met the young men responsible for their daughter’s death. Two of those men, Ntobeko Peni and Mzikhona “Easy” Nofemela, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation. They have on numerous occasions accompanied Linda Biehl on her various speaking engagements around the world.
Although Peter Biehl died in 2002 at the age of 59, his wife of 38 years, Linda, continues to carry on the work Amy and her husband left behind. A vivacious blonde with large, expressive eyes and a quick smile, Linda’s diminutive stature belies her strength. She spends a good part of every year in South Africa, administering the foundation named after her daughter, which, since 1994 has disbursed more than $8 million in funds. Thousands of children a day participate in Amy Biehl Foundation programs. – Leslee Goodman
Goodman: You’ve survived what most parents would describe as their worst nightmare: the violent death of a child. Yet you have turned this nightmare into an inspirational model of forgiveness, demonstrating what life could be like if we each responded to tragedy with an open heart, instead of a heart shut down by pain. Can you walk us through the process you took to get to that place of forgiveness?
Biehl: There wasn’t hatred or bitterness at the beginning, fortunately, because of Amy’s communication with us and because of who she was as a person. She always talked about why she was interested in working in South Africa against the apartheid regime. She kept diaries, and talked with us constantly about her reasons for being in South Africa and doing what she was doing.
From the time she was very young she always talked about issues that were important to her. She could direct the whole family towards an issue, and she had made the struggle against apartheid in South Africa her academic work and life’s passion, short as her life was.
In many ways, she prepared us for what happened to her. She often talked about South African blacks killed during the struggle years and how their deaths were reported as numbers, while whites were named, their lives and family members described, and even their pets mentioned. She subscribed to the South African newspaper and used to circle obituaries and send them to us. She always told us that if anything happened to her, she would rather be a number than a name.
We also knew that Amy was willing to do things that other people, even other activists, feared to do. Although she wasn’t irresponsible—she knew the risks—other people might say she “crossed the line.” Even her colleagues thought that maybe Amy was too much of a risk-taker.