Healing Through Activism
Parents of Murdered American Student Amy Biehl Carry on Their Daughter's Anti-Apartheid Legacy
By Fernando Quintero, Public Affairs
On what would have been their daughter Amy's 32nd birthday, Linda and Peter Biehl brought a message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the Townsend Center for the Humanities April 26.
A Fulbright scholar who was working in South Africa against apartheid, Amy Biehl was 26 when she was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town in 1994. Last July, the four men accused of the crime were granted amnesty, a decision supported by the young woman's parents.
"A lot of people ask about forgiveness," said Linda Biehl, who then read the opening passage from "Mother to Mother," a novel written in the imagined voice of one of the killer's mothers as she addresses Mrs. Biehl.
"I do not pretend to know how your daughter died. . . my son was only an agent. . .," Biehl read, as her husband stared blankly at the audience.
Afterward, a young black man in the audience asked Linda Biehl what message of healing she might have for other mothers who have lost their children.
"When you have kids you're proud of, you want them to grow and be independent," she said. "How do we ever provide security for our kids wherever we go? Look at what happened in Colorado last week. You just hope that things will be okay."
For the Biehls, carrying on their daughter's work in South Africa is clearly part of how they heal. Their talk, "Converting Human Rights to Realities," described efforts to bring about civil rights and racial reconciliation in South Africa in the post-apartheid era.
Their lecture was third in a series of events, called "Extending the Boundaries of Human Rights," being offered by the Townsend Center, Human Rights Center and the Institute for International Studies. The series examines case studies revealing cultural, economic, political and social dimensions of human rights.
The murder of Amy Biehl drew international attention to South Africa's racial violence. The Biehls, who have been married for 34 years and have three other children, said their daughter would have wanted to resolve South Africa's racial divisions. They subsequently created a foundation to continue reconciliation work in South Africa.
"In South Africa, the boundaries of human rights have been almost extended exponentially," said Peter Biehl. "It's gone from systemic denial to full inclusion. Amy's research into a new bill of rights was plagiarized for their new constitution. That is her legacy, which we are all very proud of."
The couple read from a poster picturing a smiling South African girl surrounded by excerpts of the country's new bill of rights: "Equality shall allow for affirmative action ... Domestic violence is not allowed ... You may join trade unions and go on strike ... Children under the age of 18 have special rights, including the right not to be abused ... You may use the language you want and follow the culture you choose."
The challenge, said the Biehls, is to turn the bill of rights into reality as the country moves toward a democratic way of life.
Because their daughter was killed by young people, one of the first things the Biehls set out to do after apartheid ended was to focus their attention on the next generation of South Africans. With the help of a young South African psychologist, the couple set up youth discussions panels in Guguletu, the township where Amy Biehl was killed.
Another focus was violence prevention, because "violence is one of the greatest abusers of human rights," said Peter Biehl. "There is hardly a family in the township that has not been touched by violence."
The couple said they have also looked at conditions in schools in the black townships, where they found playing fields strewn with "rocks and glass shards." They have also helped establish public music and art programs.
"We have arrived at developing sound demonstration models," said Peter Biehl. "We now know schools can run after-school programs and remedial schools can run tutorial programs after school in a church for $5,000 a year."