Deepa Bharath, Orange County Register, August 25, 2013
Easy Nofemela cradled a big bunch of white lilies in his arms as he walked next to the woman he calls “Makulu”–which means grandmother or “wise woman” in his native Xhosa.
He had driven the van that carried Linda Biehl to Gugulethu, a predominantly black township about 10 miles from Cape Town, where her daughter Amy, a 26-year-old Fulbright scholar and Stanford graduate, was stabbed and stoned by an angry mob of young black activists exactly 20 years ago. It was just two days before Amy Biehl was set to return home to Newport Beach.
The death of the white civil- and women’s-rights activist at the hands of black men was a punch in the gut to a nation that already was in turmoil.
Nofemela was a member of that mob and one of four men convicted of killing Biehl.
But the man who accompanied Linda Biehl on Sunday was as gentle as the whiff of white clouds that settle on Cape Town’s Table Mountain. This is a man with honey-colored skin, whose laugh is pitched between a child’s giggle and an old man’s guffaw, who breaks into a song and dance for no reason and whose manner is very much like his name–Easy.
As they walked together to a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of her daughter’s death, Biehl talked about how much the long-stemmed flowers reminded her of Amy, “the blond lily.” Linda Biehl said when she first visited Gugulethu after her daughter’s death, the white lilies–which grow wild around Cape Town–were resting against the fence where her daughter had collapsed, broken and bloodied.
A pensive Nofemela stood at Biehl’s side in front of the black granite cross erected in memory of her daughter at the Caltex gas station in Gugulethu. Gathered there for an informal commemoration were about 40 of Amy Biehl’s old friends, community members and others who had been touched by her story.
Placing her hand gently on Nofemela’s shoulder, Linda Biehl stood in front of her daughter’s memorial, talking about reconciliation and forgiveness–a process that, for the Biehls, initially was triggered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But later, as Biehl explained, it became an intensely personal and spiritual journey.
“This is not exactly about one person forgiving the other,” said Biehl, 70. “This is about reconciliation, and it takes more than one person to reconcile.”
Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the four men who were granted amnesty after being sentenced to 18 years in prison for Amy Biehl’s murder, now work with the Amy Biehl Foundation, which was established in 1994 by Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter. The Cape Town-based nonprofit offers after-school programs in Gugulethu and surrounding communities that now serve more than 2,000 children.
Linda Biehl told the gathering that Amy’s special gift was the ability to bring diverse groups of people together, even in a South Africa that was ripped apart and plunged in racial violence. Today, her legacy is about the lives that have been touched and changed, she said.
“Amy wanted to be a number, not a name,” said Linda Biehl, a former couture manager at Fashion Island’s Neiman Marcus. “Her wish was to be just as anonymous as the thousands of black people who died and were mere numbers.”
Mzi Noji, 44, a resident of Gugulethu who came to the memorial, said he, like Nofemela, was a member of the militant Pan Africanist Congress whose slogan at the time was “One Settler One Bullet”–the slogan Amy Biehl’s killers yelled as they attacked her yellow Mazda the evening of Aug. 25, 1993.
Biehl, who was giving a ride to a few friends including two black women, was hit by a brick that shattered the car’s windshield.
She stopped the car and stumbled out, trying to explain to her assailants that she was their “comrade.” But she was stoned and stabbed by the impassioned mob whose young members were just leaving a party meeting.
Noji said he was not present when Biehl was killed, but that he was one of many youngsters who were indoctrinated in schools, invited to underground meetings and taught to hate and hurt white people.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement that Biehl’s death “came at a time when South Africa was reaching a watershed moment in its history”–when Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, the nation’s constitution was being written and the first democratic elections were about to be held.
“We are unbelievably fortunate that Amy had already passed on her love of this country to her family,” said Tutu, who worked closely with the Biehls during the amnesty hearings. “Through the efforts of Linda and Peter, and all of you who have been involved with the Amy Biehl Foundation over the years, many people in Cape Town’s townships have been empowered and uplifted.”
He said community development programs such as those run by the foundation must demonstrate independence, strength and sustainability to survive and flourish.
“Linda, I have no doubt that God and your daughter are smiling down on you right now,” the archbishop said. “You have borne a heavy burden these past years and have done so with joy and unbridled enthusiasm.”
For Linda Biehl and her friends, Sunday began with a church service at St. Columba Anglican church, barely 100 feet away from Amy’s memorial. More than 100 congregants packed the brick-walled sanctuary, lit by pumpkin-shaped chandeliers and filled with the fragrant smoke of incense.
Congregants sang in Xhosa, a language of the native tribes, which is punctuated by clicks. They danced to the sound of drums and bells. Linda Biehl swayed to the music and rhythm as Peni’s daughter, Avile, played on her lap, stroking Biehl’s well-coiffed blond hair and trying on her pink scarf.