Amy Biehl’s Work for Justice in South Africa

Read about Amy Biehl's work for social justice in South Africa.

Amy Biehl didn’t live a long life, but she gave everything she had to promote racial justice. The connections she made have transformed into something deeper than justice: reconciliation.

As a college student at Stanford University, she developed an interest in studying African democratic movements, especially the post-apartheid period in South Africa. Her interest turned into a passion, and she won a Fulbright scholarship to study in South Africa.

During her time there, she witnessed firsthand the aftermath of apartheid and joined the fight against it by helping voters register for an upcoming free election. This was a risky topic to study — and an even riskier one to invest time and energy in. At the time, South Africa was in turmoil — apartheid left behind it a palpable and dangerous racial animosity that spilled over into violence at times.

Biehl’s commitment to justice meant she was also a kind soul. When she was asked to drive three of her African friends home on her last day in South Africa, she didn’t hesitate. That night, against the pleading of her friends, a mob from the black township dragged her from her car, beat, and killed her. “Kill the settler!” they yelled, betraying their animus for the attack: her white skin.

Amy is credited as the “first American to die in the violence associated with [South Africa’s] transition from apartheid to democracy” by the Stanford Historical Society. Though she gave her life for the justice she pursued, she left a deeper legacy of mercy and healing.

Four men were convicted of her murder. After five years of their sentence, they applied for amnesty. Linda and Peter Biehl, Amy’s parents, attended the hearing. Instead of speaking against the release of the men who killed their daughter, the Biehls shook hands with the men’s families. They did not oppose their request for amnesty.

Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni were two of the four who were granted amnesty, and they used it to run a youth club in Guguletu Township, where Biehl had been killed. The pair was encouraged to meet with Biehl’s parents, to show them their work and how they valued their second chance.

“This was a big challenge,” Easy wrote in a testimony for The Forgiveness Project. “I’d grown up being taught never to trust a white person, and I didn’t know what to make of them.”

Though they were initially fearful, a partnership developed as they got to know Amy’s parents. Easy and Ntobeko began assisting the Biehls with a community baking project in Guguletu. Though they were connected by an act of violence, their relationship grew to the point where they recognized each other as a sort of family.   

“I’ve grown fond of these young men,” Linda Biehl wrote. “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.”

“Not until I met Linda and Peter Biehl did I understand that white people are human beings, too,” Easy wrote.

Both Easy and Ntobeko now work for a charity named for the woman that they helped kill — the Amy Biehl Foundation. The foundation promotes the causes that Amy was passionate about: human rights, social justice, violence protection, and racial forgiveness.

Amy’s work for justice put her in harm’s way, but her suffering and death sowed seeds that have grown into reconciliation and healing. Inspired by her example, her parents and her attackers have reached for a deeper humanity in one another and their connection is transforming their communities.

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