Amy Biehl

      It was supposed to have been one of Amy Biehl's last days in South Africa. It was a Wednesday, and in only three days on that coming Saturday she was scheduled to return to the United States. An idealistic Stanford graduate, Amy was completing a 10-month course of study as a Fullbright exchange scholar at the University of Western Cape Community Law Center where she had helped to develop voter registration programs for South African blacks and women as that nation's first all-race elections approached in April, 1994. Amy was scheduled to continue her promising academic career the following week as a new graduate student at Rutger's University in New Jersey. Amy never made it back to the United States alive.

      On August 25, 1993, while Amy was driving three black colleagues back to Cape Town's Guguletu Township, a group of youths pelted her car with stones and forced it to stop. Dozens of young men then surrounded the car repeating the militant Pan Africanist Congress chant, "One settler [white person], one bullet!" Amy was then pulled from the car, struck in the head with a brick as she tried to flee, and then beaten and stabbed in the heart while she lay on the ground. During the attack, Amy's black friends yelled that she was a "comrade" and friend of black South Africa to no avail. Amy was carried back to the car after the attack by her friends who then drove her to the nearest police station where she died. Amy was 26 years old at the time of her murder.

      It would seem at first glance that, despite our sharing ages (born 1967), hometowns (Newport Beach, CA), and religion (Roman Catholic), Amy Biehl and I would have little in common. The country of South Africa and its problems are not something central to my own life and thoughts. And Leland Stanford University comes perilously close to representing so much that I hate: political orthodoxy, naiveté, the substitution of social truth for actual truth. However, none of this obfuscates for me at all the uniqueness both of Amy Biehl's life and her death. I respect enormously the dedication and discipline which led Amy to work and eventually die in a country thousands of miles away from her own. I respect her dedication to something larger than herself, and her willingness to put her life on the line for her beliefs.

      Amy is one of those rare individuals who have both the talent and the drive to stand out from the crowd and make a definite impact. She was class valedictorian at Newport Harbor High School and graduated from prestigious Stanford with honors. An extremely hard-working student and intellectual, Amy's undergraduate thesis at Stanford was described by an advisor as "in the top 10% of all honors theses," and is still requested for reading by political scientists, government and United Nations officials. Her devotion to the study of South Africa led her to live in a place of endemic violence and intractable hatreds in the hope of improving the situation. Look at her example in the context of the United States today!, where the most important concerns for so many are chasing money and/or the football game next Sunday afternoon! With a clear moral direction in her own life, Amy sought to bring the light of education through political empowerment to a place that otherwise would have been the less without her. And she died for it. "We didn't consider Amy to have been a victim," Amy's father Peter Biehl commented. "She was doing what she wanted in life, and she was well aware of the risks and rewards."

      I sometimes wonder what Amy was thinking in the car after the attack as they frantically drove her to that police station. Resting her head in the lap of a friend, she surely must have known that her death was at hand. Was she struck by the irony that she had been attacked by the very people she was trying to help? Her killing is yet another example of the utterly egalitarian nature of murder wherein any idiot (or mob of idiots) can in a moment of violent rage cut short the life of someone as unique and special as Amy Biehl. It is another depressing reminder how the most noble human sentiments such as idealism and altruism can be snuffed out in a few moments of animal cruelty.

      One of her murderers, Mongezi Manqina, testified later that by killing whites, black militants hoped to get the former apartheid government to respond to their grievances. "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," said a second young killer, Mzikhona Nofemela. The young men have said they were members of the Pan Africanist Congress' military wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), and its student wing, the Pan Africanist Students' Organization. A third convicted killer, Ntobeko Ambrose Peni, claimed Tuesday the student group approved the killing of whites. "It did not just happen," Peni said of attack on Biehl. "At the time, we were told to act and to help APLA to fight and burn government vehicles so that South Africa would be ungovernable. The speaker said that every white man was an enemy." I can understand resorting to violence under an odious and oppressive government; but the idea that the murder of a defenseless young woman through mob violence could achieve anything useful is particularly instructive as to the pathetic state of pre-apartheid South Africa where hundreds died in similar circumstances every month.

      The men who killed Amy are presently trying to get amnesty for their crime under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which is empowered to set free those who acted under color of political control. I had in my life met too many violent young men to fully believe that those four convicted of Amy's murder were only following orders from their superiors in order to bring about political change. I can see them feeling their blood rise as hatred took control, the spirit of the hunt, the righteous release of physical violence, the enjoyment of it. We shall see if they are released or held personally responsible for their acts. But none of this business will bring Amy back to life.

      Yet perhaps there is no evil that does not bring some good with it. It might be that Amy's murder will bring more international attention to her message of political empowerment in South Africa (especially for women) than did her work in life! "The blood of Amy Biehl waters the seeds of black women. The seeds that Amy was planting will germinate and help stop abuse of other black women," claimed Nomonde Ngqakayi. Even as democracy seems firmly planted, post-apartheid South Africa remains a country racked by pervasive crime and violence. There were 50,481 reported rapes in 1996 - 119.5 cases for every 100,000 South Africans - one of the highest ratios in the world! "Change in this country is only going to come about through black women: when they support one another and stand together and say, 'We've had enough,'" explained Rolene Miller, a social worker in the "Mosaic" program centered in the Guguletu Township only about a mile away from where Amy was murdered. "We believe you cannot have peace in the land until you have peace in your home. When you do, that's when real change will come about." Moreover, the four militants were convicted of Amy's murder only after three women poignantly defied threats and came forward to testify when nobody else dared do so. Amy's spirit clearly in death lives on in the townships of South Africa.

      Amy's parents developed the Amy Biehl Foundation so that their daughter's death might produce life in South Africa through prisoner rehabilitation programs, literacy training and job skills instruction. "How do we link arms in friendship and do something?" Mr. Biehl asked a hushed room of journalists during a press conference in South Africa. "We, the Amy Biehl Foundation, are willing to do our part as catalysts for social progress. Are you, the community of South Africa, prepared to do your part?" It is one thing to kill people in the name of freedom and justice; quite another to day-after-day build a country of educated and responsible citizens through education and leadership. We shall see how South Africa chooses her future.

      Testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on July 8, 1997, Mr. Biehl read a passage from a book by biologist/humanist Lewis Thomas that Amy had herself used in her high school valedictorian speech:

The drive to be useful is encoded in our genes. But when we gather in very large numbers, as in the modern nation-state, we seem capable of levels of folly and self-destruction to be found nowhere else in all of nature.

But if we keep at it and keep alive, we are in for one surprise after another. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never heard before, music never heard before.

Thomas's eloquent words speak volumes about the character of Amy Biehl, the life she chose to lead, the death she suffered, and the possible legacy she leaves behind her.

May Amy Biehl rest in peace!

"When good men die their goodness does not perish, but lives though they are gone. As for the bad, all that was theirs dies and is buried with them."


Some discussions....

Zealots and Fanatics
"It will take alot longer for the sun to burn out
than for the last zealot with a sword to render the last infidel 'saved.'"

Sheer Suicide
"...white superior AMERICAN know it all moron..."