Seeking Justice, Honor for Slain Daughter : South Africa: Linda Biehl is on her third trip to Cape Town for key proceedings in which four men accused of killing the Fulbright scholar might be freed.
Soon after Amy Biehl went off to South Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship two years ago, she tried in vain to persuade her mother to visit her in Cape Town. But at the time, Linda Biehl felt she could not afford the time away from work and her teen-age son at home.
“She kept saying, ‘Mom, why don’t you come on down,’ ” said Biehl, 51, of Newport Beach. “Those words have come back to haunt me.”
Nearly a year ago, Amy Biehl, 26, was stoned and stabbed to death in the township of Guguletu outside Cape Town. The white student activist, who was helping to develop voter registration programs, was driving some black friends home when her car was set upon by a crowd of young black men shouting racial slurs.
In a bitter irony, it is her daughter’s death that eventually took Biehl to South Africa. She has gone to attend the criminal proceedings for her daughter’s accused killers and to look for constructive ways to preserve her daughter’s memory.
Biehl now visits a radically different nation than the one her daughter knew--one taking its first tentative steps toward a future without apartheid. Biehl has begun to witness the political and social changes that her daughter had worked to bring about through her involvement in grass-roots organizations, but tragically never lived to see.
On Friday, Biehl and her eldest daughter, Kim, boarded a plane to Cape Town. It was Biehl’s third trip to South Africa since her daughter’s death. On Monday, they will attend a key court hearing that could determine whether the accused killers go free.
In a Cape Town courtroom, Judge President Gerald Friedman is expected to decide whether the four men’s incriminating statements to police should be admissible as evidence in the trial. The four--Mongezi Manquina, Mzikhona Nofemela and Vusumzi Ntamo and an unidentified 15-year-old, say they did not commit the crimes and were beaten by police until they confessed.
They have been charged with murder, robbery and public violence and have been free on $70 bail since their arrests. Four other men also were charged, but they were freed when witnesses refused to testify.
If the confessions are thrown out, prosecutors say, they will have no case.
“It would virtually ruin us because we don’t have any other evidence against them,” said State Advocate Nollie Niehaus, who is handling the case. “One of the girls in the car testified that she could identify one of the defendants, but then under cross-examination said she could only identify him by his hair. That’s a bit dicey.”
Several people who allegedly witnessed the attack have refused to talk to police or recanted their statements out of fear for their lives, Niehaus said.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Newport Beach, the Biehls have been trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. In addition to Biehl, there is her husband, Peter, daughters Molly, 24, and Kim, 28, and a son, Zach, 17.
As the first anniversary of the slaying approaches, the family continues to struggle with the loss of the bright, idealistic young woman who became an unlikely martyr in the struggle to free South Africa from apartheid.
“It’s been really hard on all of us,” Linda Biehl said. “I worry a lot more about the kids and trying to help them deal with this in their lives.”
The Aug. 25, 1993, slaying--which occurred days before Amy Biehl was to return home, gained widespread international attention because she was one of the first foreigners killed in South African civil disturbances during pre-election violence that claimed more than 9,000 lives.
Despite the savage nature of the attack, the Biehl family and friends have blamed the system of apartheid for fueling the kind of hatred that led to the slaying, rather than the individuals involved.
“I can’t really blame anyone,” Biehl said on the eve of her latest trip. “I want to understand it. We’re just trying to understand it as best we can.”
According to police accounts, Amy Biehl was driving three friends home in Guguletu, an impoverished black township, when a brick smashed the windshield of her Mazda.
Her friends frantically urged her to drive on, but she was disoriented after reportedly being struck in the face. Screaming, “One settler, one bullet!” a group of black youths pulled her from the car, then stabbed and beat her, police said. She was dead within half an hour.
Rumors that the four accused men might be pardoned under the new government’s political amnesty program disturb Biehl. Prosecutor Niehaus says those fears are groundless, but Biehl is unconvinced.
During her trip to South Africa, Biehl plans to meet with Justice Minister Dullah Omar to express these concerns. Her daughter had worked for Omar when he was director of the University of Western Cape’s Community Law Center. Biehl said she still has a picture of Omar and her daughter, holding hands.
“I just want to remind him that Amy was still an important person to us, and there should be some accountability in some way for the loss of her life,” Biehl said. “We’re understanding, but we’re not forgetting. There’s a balance there.”
Biehl said she tries not to dwell too much on developments at the criminal trial. She is doing all she can, she said, to commemorate the anniversary of her daughter’s death in a way that she would have wanted.
“I would rather help keep her memory going in a positive way,” Biehl said. “If they can remember her as a person who was trying to help, then that’s the best way to honor her legacy.”
Knowing how much the country’s first historic, multiracial elections meant to her daughter, Biehl traveled to South Africa in February to share in the euphoria. She will be in the audience Aug. 18 when President Nelson Mandela gives his 100-day State of the Union address before Parliament.
The Biehls have established the Amy Biehl Fund to help finance grass-roots projects, mostly in South Africa, such as those in which the young woman was involved before her death. During her 10-month stint as a Fulbright scholar, Amy Biehl joined several women’s rights groups and helped set up a voter education program.
The fund gave $4,000 to a battered women’s shelter in South Africa. The money came from the proceeds of a jazz concert in Washington that Molly Biehl helped organize.
Linda Biehl plans to visit the shelter this week and says she also will be on the lookout for other worthy projects. She is being careful, knowing that her presence could inflame passions.
“It has to be done very carefully and out of concern for not upsetting the township,” she said. “You don’t want to just go bouncing into a situation where you’re going to cause more havoc than give help.”
When she returns to Newport Beach on Aug. 22, the monumental task of sorting through her daughter’s research papers and personal effects will await her.
Biehl plans to send some of the research to Stanford University to help the next Fulbright scholar who goes to South Africa.
There also could be a movie in the offing, Biehl said. The family is considering an offer, solely to raise money for the nonprofit organization, she said.
With so much activity, Biehl quit her job in December to devote her attention to the foundation.
“We’re just still flooded with things to do,” she said. “But you just have to kind of roll with it.”