Co-Founder (with her husband, Peter) of the Amy Biehl Foundation
Profile written by Cate Malek
Linda Biehl draws a clear distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation.
"Forgiveness is something for you," she says. "It releases things in you that set you free. It's not for other people as much as for yourself. Reconciliation is active. It takes work. Forgiveness is a release."
Linda speaks from hard-earned experience.
On August 25th, 1993, her daughter, Amy Biehl, was killed just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Amy was in South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship helping to develop voter registration programs. She was driving several of her coworkers home to the Gugulethu Township when her car was stopped by a mob of angry youths. Despite the protests of her friends, the mob attacked Amy, beating her and finally stabbing her.
Amy's story could have ended there. Instead, Linda and her late husband, Peter, returned to South Africa. Slowly, South Africa became their full-time careers and an inextricable part of their lives. Today, Linda divides her time between the United States and South Africa, running the Amy Biehl Foundation that she and Peter started. Two of the men convicted for Amy's death are now her close friends. Although Linda's story is extraordinary, she also believes it was the only thing she could have done.
"I wouldn't have come here if I wasn't asked to. We went because we were asked," Linda explains.
After Amy's death, the Biehls received thousands of phone calls, many from people in South Africa. They also received invitations to visit South Africa from the City of Cape Town and the African National Congress.
"We went just to get everyone off our backs," Linda says laughing.
In 1993, South Africa was just on the verge of ending apartheid. It was a tense, violent time in the nation's history. Although the Biehls were familiar with the situation, nothing could have prepared them to see it first hand.
"It was very much like being in a revolution," Linda says. I imagine us with big doe eyes. People here [in the U.S.] said, 'why are you going?' But when you see it for yourself with your own eyes, it was the best possible thing we could have done. It made us free."
After that trip, the Biehls thought they were done with South Africa for a while. But they were asked to come back again and again. Linda and her daughter Molly returned for the murder trial. Then later, Linda and Peter returned to invest some of the money they had received after Amy's death. Eventually, Peter and Linda quit their jobs in California and started a South African organization, running after-school programs and small businesses in the townships.
"We had already determined that Amy was killed during a very violent time, but there was still violence. It was mostly economic-based, there were no schools. We wanted to help make functional young people," says Linda.
In 1997, Desmond Tutu created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Created to deal with the horrors of apartheid, the TRC allowed perpetrators of racial crimes to receive amnesty for a full confession. Victims could also receive reparations for the pain they had suffered. The four men convicted of Amy's murder applied.
The Biehls wanted to be respectful of the TRC process because they knew that Amy would have supported it. They granted all four men amnesty. At the hearing, Peter addressed the Commission saying, "The most important vehicle of reconciliation is open and honest dialogue...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." However, despite what Peter had said at the hearing, probably nobody expected what happened next.
After they were released from prison, Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the men convicted of Amy's murder had come to much the same conclusion the Biehls had about the townships.
"They were shocked to see things hadn't changed. Things were worse. Their friends were not in school. There was a lot of drinking and drugs," Linda remembers. The two men started a youth group in their township and they wanted to show the Biehls what they had done. An anthropologist who had been interviewing them offered to contact the Biehls. They agreed.
The Biehls took Nofemela and Peni out to dinner. That night was the beginning of a strong friendship between the four. The Biehls hired the two men to help out with their organization. For many, this is the hardest part of the Biehls' story to grasp.
Linda explains, "Mediation and conflict happen on the most personal level. I'm not sure if I can describe my relationships with Easy and Ntobeko. They make sense to me and it is what it is. I love them, but you don't have to love everyone. You do have to see someone as a human being. They call me Makulu, which means wise woman. It's about respect for humanity and finding strength to open up to that realization. I feel badly for people who get in situations, for people who can't open the door and get a little light."
For Linda, this is where the reconciliation part of the story comes in. After she and Peter forgave Easy and Ntobeko, there was still much work to be done. They divided their time between the United States and South Africa, working in some of the most dangerous areas in South Africa. After Peter's death in 2002 from colon cancer, Linda continues to run the organization. She focuses on after-school programs. Her programs teach children how to avoid abuse and introduce them to the arts. Linda says that the adults in the townships are just as interested in the programs as the children are.
"People in the townships want their kids to do these things and they want to do them too," she says laughing.
Linda says her work in South Africa has been an enormous opportunity for her and she will continue to do it as long as she is physically able.
"People want me to talk about the past, but I'm not back there. It's been 12 years," she says. "I feel extremely privileged to have had these opportunities. Often, I have to swallow hard and I think I'm not sure I can do this. But then I do it. It's energizing. The more you learn, the more you learn you don't know... It's hard, but it should be hard. It's the same with parent/child or husband/wife relationships. That's what makes it real."
Ultimately, she says, her work is about turning Amy's life into an inspiration instead of a tragedy. On the website for the Amy Biehl Foundation, she wrote,
"Amy's legacy lives inside so many people. It drives her mother to continue her work and flourishes among the staff of the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town. Her legacy has inspired young people in the United States and has been a source of opportunity to thousands of South African youth. Amy's legacy thrives in the hearts of all of us who knew her and thousands of people she never met who have been inspired by her story. Perhaps most amazingly, her legacy lives through two men who played a big role in her death. Today, Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela spread Amy's legacy throughout their community in South Africa. It is their transformation that truly represents the powerful legacy of Amy Biehl. Their transformation is what Amy was working for."