On August 25th, 1993, Amy Biehl was driving 3 blacks colleagues to their home in the Gugulethu Township in Cape Town, when a group of youths representing the Pan Africanist Congress militant group began to attack their vehicle. The mob of youths, fresh from a raucous political meeting, began pelting the vehicle with stones, forcing it to stop. Radical chants of "one settler, one bullet!", rang out as they surrounded the vehicle, forcing Amy out on to the street where they continued to attack. She was then driven to the nearest police station, where she later died. Amy Biehl was just 26 years old.
Amy Biehl, an idealistic Stanford graduate student, and an anti-apartheid activist, was just days from returning home to the United States. She was completing a 10-month exchange program at the University of Western Cape Community Law Center as part of the Fulbright program. She passionately opposed the Apartheid government, and devoted much of her efforts during her stay to the upcoming South African election, the nation's first all-race election scheduled in April of 1994. She truly believed that Africa was "the continent of the future" and was committed to voter registration programs for blacks and women to ensure the end of apartheid power.
The irony of the tragedy is that Amy was killed by the very people she was trying to help. During the attack, her black friends continuously pleaded that she was a "comrade", a friend of South Africa. It was to no avail. Four men were eventually arrested and charged with the murder, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Shortly thereafter, however, the new African National Congress (ANC) government formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like body, responsible for reviewing requests for amnesty to those guilty of committing politically motivated crimes. The convicted murderers in the Amy Biehl case applied for amnesty, testifying that at the time of the murder "We were in very high spirits, and the White people were oppressive; we had no mercy on the White people. A White person was a White person to our eyes." They each further testified; "What I believed is if you kill a white person, it is how we are going to get the land returned from the white people". Determined to honour Amy's belief in the truth and reconciliation process, and her love for South Africa, Amy's parents Linda and Peter Biehl, chose to attend and participate in the hearings, supporting the request for amnesty. Peter Biehl addressed the commission:
"We have the highest respect for your Truth and Reconciliation Commission and process. We recognize that if this process had not been a pre-negotiated condition your democratic free elections could not possibly have occurred. Therefore, and believing as Amy did in the absolute importance of those democratic election occurring we unabashedly support the process which we recognize to be unprecedented in contemporary human history.
At the same time we say to you it's your process, not ours. We cannot, therefore, oppose amnesty if it is granted on the merits. In the truest sense it is for the community of South Africa to forgive its own and this has its basis in traditions of ubuntu and other principles of human dignity. Amnesty is not clearly for Linda and Peter Biehl to grant.
You face a challenging and extraordinarily difficult decision. How do you value a committed life? What value do you place on Amy and her legacy in South Africa? How do you exercise responsibility to the community in granting forgiveness in the granting of amnesty? How are we preparing prisoners, such as these young men before us, to re-enter the community as a benefit to the community, acknowledging that the vast majority of South Africa's prisoners are under 30 years of age? Acknowledging as we do that there's massive unemployment in the marginalised community; acknowledging that the recidivism rate is roughly 95%. So how do we, as friends, link arms and do something? There are clear needs for prisoners' rehabilitation in our country as well as here. There are clear needs for literacy training and education, and there are clear needs for the development of targeted job skill training. We, as the Amy Biehl Foundation, are willing to do our part as catalysts for social progress. All anyone need do is ask. Are you, the community of South Africa, prepared to do your part?"
In 1998, four years after the demise of the apartheid era, the four convicted murderers were pardoned, and released from prison. The Biehls ultimately supported the verdict, shaking the hands of the convicted murderers upon their release. Peter Biehl stated in conclusion to the hearings:
"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".
The Biehls have since created the Amy Biehl foundation. The foundation's mission statement is "to weave a barrier against violence" and "to prevent youth violence through a holistic approach to community development in socio-economically disadvantaged communities in and around Cape Town.". The foundation runs daily and weekly programs throughout Cape Town’s many townships, ensuring kids have equal opportunities in activities such as, sports, music, art, health awareness and dancing. Peter Biehl has since lost his life to cancer, however, the Foundation continues to grow under the direction of Linda Biehl, who now spends much of her time in South Africa. To help, please visit the Contribute section.