Megan Kamerick Talks with Linda Biehl about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in South Africa where the men who’d served time for her daughter Amy’s murder had applied for amnesty.
Linda Biehl: … (They) did not have to apologize or show remorse.
Megan Kamerick: Did you want that?
Biehl: No. We said we want to support the process. A lot of people thought we advocated for their release. We did not. We said, “We want to support South Africa’s process.” So we went. I attended a few sessions of the trial just to see what it was like, not a jury operated. But in the TRC, they gave us a day and we were doing things in South Africa and we said to Desmond Tutu: “What would you suggest? How do you think we should approach the little bit of time that we were supposed to speak or could speak?” He said, “You know, just tell them about Amy and speak from your heart.” What does that mean exactly? So we put together a little bio and it was when I started talking about Amy personally and what she was like, all four of the guys who had been sort of sitting like this, very stern –
Kamerick: With their eyes cast down…
Biehl: Yeah, started looking at us because they thought she was propaganda. They thought we couldn’t be her biological parents. They were in prison and saw us on TV and saw us do things, so it made her human. It made her a person. Their parents were there and their parents were listening. We were parents in this together and that is sort of the spirit of Ubuntu that is sort of the bedrock which Tutu has said “The process of a person is a person through other persons” was there.
And so Easy (Nofemela) was asked, kind of in a prosecuting kind of tone of voice, “If you had known that Amy Biehl was working for your cause, would you have killed her?” Now, if he wanted to be nice, [he would have said] we’re so sorry. He didn’t do that. He said, “No, we would have found her better for our cause alive than dead.” That was the truth and so that was what they were supposed to speak was the truth and if he had sugar-coated it, I think it wouldn’t have been the truth.
So as that day ended, it was sort of a day and a half kind of an event. We were walking out and they were being taken back to the prison in a truck that was waiting outside and we were coming through the passageway to leave the court - away from the press actually - and there they were and they shook our hands and they said, “Please forgive us.” They asked for forgiveness. They didn’t have to do that, but it was great. It did not happen in front of the cameras or in the hearing itself, it happened personally. I don’t think at that moment when we saw them that we ever thought we’d have a personal relationship with them. I think we kind of felt it was positive and we would go on. We were starting to really work hard in the townships.
But when they got out, when they were released, they found that things had not changed in their communities. In fact, some of it was worse and their comrades who were friends that they grew up with and in the movement with were doing drugs and drinking more alcohol, no jobs and they were using their skills to hijack cars and armored trucks. They were just committing crimes. But they decided to start a youth program. They had been activists. They wanted change in the community.
Kamerick: And this is those two, the other two men?
Biehl: Right, the other two men. Well, one was the mental age of a nine year old and the other one was a little bit more – Easy and Ntobeko called him a thug. I do know his mother and his sister, but he went back to prison.
Kamerick: So this is Easy and Ntobeko?
Biehl: Yeah, so this is Easy and Ntobeko and they were actually being interviewed by an anthropologist from Cal Berkley who was studying them and she said, “So would you like to see the Biehl’s?” They said, “yes” and my husband was over there, (my daughter) Molly was having her first child, so I was not there with him at the time. And she brought (Peter) out to meet them. They checked him out to see if he was carrying a gun and things like that, but eventually they sat down and they wanted to know where I was and he said, “Well, she’s coming next week” and they just kind of sat around in Easy’s little house and talked and they said, “We started a youth group, etc.”
So I get there and I walk in and Easy said I was shy. I wasn’t really shy I was just kind of looking around I think, but he says, “I’m one of seven brothers.” I go, “Oh!” and I pull out a picture of my week-old grandson. “This is my grandson.” [gasps] “Makulu!” “Oh, what’s that?” “Grandmother.” And then they started calling me “Makulu” and my husband “Domkulu.” It’s like, what is this?
They invited us to come out to a Sunday evening meeting at the township to watch what they were doing with the youth group. They showed us the constitution they had made and their goals and objectives. And so we kind of said, “What do you want?” Well, they wanted us to be involved in the launch and support it. They did not ask us for money. We did give them t-shirts and we also got them tickets to go see Robenn Island, the prison (where Mandela had been held) and all that kind of stuff. Just thinking they wanted to get them out of the townships to relieve stress and see other things, so they were very clever; they got people who worked in Cape Town who had monthly train tickets and they gathered them all up and took a dozen, two dozen of these young people out on these hikes, but what they really needed and what they eventually said was, “We know you’re studying programs; block-making, welding, skill development, sewing, coops” and things like that where they will have a skill where they could actually make money. They were really aware that we were doing things to help create functional youth that went through the struggle times and give them the skills so they don’t have to resort to crime and violence. That was our mission.
Kamerick: So now I think they don’t work for your foundations, is that correct?
Biehl: They do.
Kamerick: Is it odd to have this now long-standing deep relationship with the men who saw Amy’s last moments who were responsible for her death?
Biehl: It was much more natural. I think when they named me “Makulu” and then at this launch for the youth group, there was this head table, they brought in people from the community to sing and dance for us and they did a little program and it said, “Linda Biehl; Mother of us all, please tell us of your experiences.” A little farther down: “Peter Biehl, Father of us all, help us …” they wanted him to help in business. “Help us develop our skills,” or something like that. I think they adopted us! I think that’s what it really came down to.
Kamerick: Have people ever said to you, “Why would you stay there and do that?” Why don’t you just walk away after you’ve come to a resolution about her death?
Biehl: Well, you know, it kind of got in our blood. In fact, we talked Walter Sisulu whose daughter was Ambassador of the U.S. for a while, I said, “What is this South African thing?” She said, “Well, you know, people get the bug.”
Kamerick: What do you think Amy would think about all the things you’re doing now?
Biehl: Well my personal feeling is that she had enough of a critical mind that she would say, “I don’t know that that’s a good idea.” But on the other hand, she was a researcher and she was in the politics of it and she was a debater and all this kind of stuff, but she never ran an organization so if I feel her in back of me saying, I go like, “You know what Amy? This is hard.” I think you do and the other thing is I have found people that cope with their lives, with death, with the living conditions they’re in and they still have a sense of humor. And getting to know Desmond Tutu as kind of my mentor and particularly after Peter died he was great for me. I could say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t do this bakery because we just had a driver shot and killed.”
I mean there were really bad things that happened. And he said, “No, no. You must do it. You can do it.” When Peter died, (it was colon cancer), at the end I was trying to keep him involved and he said, “You can do it.” I think I accepted the challenge. I think it’s more common than people realize, that the need to be positive, to fill a void and to go on in honoring that person you lost in some way is a part of us as much, if not more, than anger and bitterness.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with Easy Nofemela, one of the 4 men who served prison time for the mob beating and death of Amy Biehl in 1993. Easy and the others were granted amnesty with the Biehl’s supporting the TRC Process. He and Ntobeko Peni later worked for the Amy Biehl Foundation in South Africa.
Paul Ingles: I’m speaking with Easy Nofemela from South Africa. Easy, an anthropologist Nancy Shepherd Hughes who was working with you after your release helped get you together with Linda and Peter Biehl. Can you tell our listeners something about that meeting?
Easy Nofemela: It was bringing the bridge closer together because Nancy…she do a great job. What she does was she came to my cottage house and she wanted to speak with me and wanted to ask me some questions. Peter is – I call Domkulu. Domkulu is Grandfather – a person who can spoil children. A person who understands the situation here in South Africa better than the whites in South Africa. A person who is able to care and love. Peter, he came to my house to talk. And we asked Linda to come. She was in the States. And Linda, after I think a week or two weeks, she came with Linda and from there we become too close too much and become Makulu and Domkulu and two children, two sons; myself and Ntobeko. Let’s forgive and reconcile one another. They understand that we had been involved in their daughter’s death. But the way they handled the environment here in South Africa, is really exciting and we see a change.
Ingles: Your many years of collaborating with the Biehl family, after being involved with Amy’s death, have seem extraordinary to many. So they understood why it was the way it was and they cared about the steps that needed to be taken to make it better. What lessons do you think it all represents for people listening, who may be faced with having to resolve big and small conflicts in their own lives?
Nofemela: First there is a respect among the people. You are not bigger than another person. We are all one and the same. If we have a problem, we need to talk about it.
Ingles: Once you sit down and talk with another that has a very different experience than you, in this case, whites and blacks, what are some suggestions about talking together better?
Nofemela: People need to talk to other people’s (what do you call it?) maybe I can say style or culture. Because if you can look in the white aresa, a neighbor and maybe another neighbors that doesn’t know each other. So also they are distant from us. That’s what we’re trying to bring. To understand us. To understand them. If I’m fighting with my neighbors, that neighbor will try to call these two neighbors to sit down and talk. You become now the same person in the same problem that needed to be solved. You see?
Nofemela: Why? So they can make sure they understand us. And, as I said, the whites, if there is a problem, we’ll sit down and talk and then it will be better.
Ingles: How is life between whites and blacks in South Africa today? Would you say there’s been improvement and what needs improving still?
Nofemela: Paul, it’s a big improvement I’m telling you. My generation and my parents used to say, “Stay at home. When you see a white person you must run away because they can be disappeared or arrested or be beaten.” Today, our children, my children, when they see the white person, they jump on them. There is no fear; they love, they talk, they’re laughing. You can see when the visitors when they talk with the kids. You can see the love, you can see the care. You can see that the kids will get what they need. You see? They’re understanding.
Also, with visitors coming, we talked with them and said, “Listen, now this is not a South African issues and problems in the world. This is a world problem that we need to solve.” I feel we here in South Africa we treat whites and blacks just fine. There are whites staying in Guguletu in the township, enjoying life. We meet and talk. There is no problem.
We need also like an exchange program where we can organize maybe schools or maybe three schools, the township schools and overseas or white schools and keep talking to one another. When they’re talking like asking questions, someone stands up and talks, when you do that, also coming in and visit. Sleep over in the township with their friends. In that way they can look at themselves as brothers and sisters. It’s a totally different generation.
Ingles: Easy Nofemela, I want to thank you for talking to me today.
Nofemela: Yes, okay Paul, thank you. Thank you – thank you very much.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with journalist Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project
Paul Ingles: I’m curious when you say that public opinion is split down the middle and that one half say or a large number of the respondents would say that it lets perpetrators off the hook and I guess the suggestion is that if you forgive a perpetrator and let them off the hook then they will commit violence again.
Marina Cantacuzino: Yeah.
Ingles: I’m just curious if, in your study of the concept and the conversations and the many stories you’ve explored, whether you see that to be true very often.
Cantacuzino: The only time I think it can be true, and I have seen this happen, is in situations of domestic violence.
Actually Desmond Tutu puts it very well. He talks about releasing or renewing a relationship that’s been abusive and he talks about [how] you can release a relationship, walk away from something, and still forgive. I think some people think that forgiveness means reconciliation and that you have to put up with bad behavior and I’ve certainly seen that happen where people keep forgiving somebody, keep going back to somebody and keep getting further abused and that’s where I think those conversations need to be had because forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation necessarily. It’s something that’s very deep within your heart and you can easily forgive and walk away from the situation.
Ingles: Well I’m interested in your conversation about forgiveness and you’ve posted a really interesting essay on your website theforgivenessproject.com. Let me ask you about some of those comments in there. You wrote that Terry Waite, who had been held hostage in Lebanon for many years, said that a useful goal is to truly understand why an individual or group is resorting to violence. Would you say that that kind of curiosity is missing most cases of the use of violence? I’m thinking of what you had just said which is you can continue to forgive, but if you don’t make the concerted effort, which is very difficult sometimes to really truly understand why an individual is resorting to violence or acting out that way, then there’s something – a big step seems to be missing.
Cantacuzino: Yes, I do think one of the key attributes of a forgiving person is curiosity and part of that curiosity is wanting to understand why people behave in the way they do and it’s the first step towards building empathy I think and compassion and if you don’t have that desire to understand what makes people tick, why they behave the way they do, then you get quite stuck in black and white thinking and that is the only way the [inaudible] of forgiveness, black and white thinking, because you just decide what’s right and what’s wrong and that if people don’t behave like you behave then that’s wrong. So it’s a very judgmental position and I think people who get to a point where they want to forgive – and it can take many, many years, decades sometimes, they always break through and their perspective broadens basically so that they’re able to see life from the other person’s point of view and that doesn’t mean to say you’re condoning what happened, it simply means, as one person I interviewed said, her father was killed in a terrorist attack, and she said of the man who planted the bomb who she now actually works with to build Bridges of Peace, she said, “If I had lived your life, perhaps I would have made your choices.” And I think that’s a very powerful statement. How do any of us know really the choices we would have made if we had been born with someone else’s brain into someone else’s community with someone else’s experiences that lead them down the path of violence?
Ingles: As a journalist, do you find that that particular curiosity is especially missing in news reporting on nation to nation violence or individual violence on a local level when a criminal commits a murder?
Cantacuzino: I think so. On the whole that is true. I think the stories we hear are very one-sided very often. They tell a particular line of a particular conflict. It depends a bit. When you say about “as a journalist,” I immediately think of newspapers and it really, really does depend usually what you’re reading and the news channels and I think that’s just maybe more in the UK than in America. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t really like to make that judgment.
But one thing I have noticed in the last ten years is that transformative stories, I call them “restorative narratives,” if you like, people who have sought compassion, empathy, have perhaps met their perpetrator, these are far more common than they ever were. In a way they map a way forward for us. They show us that it doesn’t have to be this endless cycle of conflict and violence and revenge.
Ingles: Well I would say the notion or the term “restorative justice” is not something we heard very much of 10 or 15 years ago and I think it’s a little more prevalent now.
Cantacuzino: No, exactly. Yes indeed.
Ingles: Now Marina, the story of Amy Biehl’s family forgiving and then partnering with two of her killers in the South African story, it’s the story we’re telling on our program today. What do you find most compelling about this particular story which you also featured in your project as well?
Cantacuzino: Yes, in 2003, I met Linda Biehl in South Africa and two of the young men who were responsible for her daughter’s death, I interviewed Easy and Linda it was quite difficult because the day before, there had been a documentary about Amy Biehl’s murder and Easy and Ntobeko were really upset because in it they had been called killers and it was just – it wasn’t done with any compassion and many people would say, “Well, why should it be?” but they were continually trying to reinvent themselves and I think Linda totally got that. She said to me that, “They don’t see themselves as killers.” Easy said to me, “I’m not a killer. I’ve never thought of myself as such” yet they got caught up in the violence. They were led that way. Easy also said he would also never join another political organization again because it had messed up his mind, brainwashed him.
Also something that Linda said to me which was very moving, she said that she found that there was a little bit of Amy’s spirit in those boys, in Easy and Ntobeko and I can understand that in a way. Not only were they the last to see her daughter alive, but also their restoration in a way, puts meaning into a senseless murder and there’s been quite a lot of research into victims of homicide or survivors, people who cope better are able to make meaning and make sense, make some sense for themselves out of a terrible trauma and it struck me that that’s exactly what Linda had done by founding this organization, by employing these men who killed her daughter. And it was a remarkable relationship that they developed, a very parental one in a way, a very caring one and it’s great that they’re all working together still. You wonder if these things can last, but it’s been 12 years since I’ve actually been to South Africa and met them. They’re all still working together for the Amy Biehl Foundation which is a remarkable testimony I think to their willingness to try and change the world that they live in and for Easy, it’s very much about making amends, about putting something back into society.
Also Linda talked to us about Ubuntu and Ubuntu is a fantastic concept I think meaning my humanity is inextricably caught up with yours, the sense that we’re responsible for the society we live in basically.