Wabash Voices: Reconciliation

  September 29, 2004

Text and photos by Melissa Butler

Last semester, Wabash Professor of Political Science Melissa Butler travelled around the world aboard the Universe Explorer, teaching and learning as part of the ship’s Global Studies program. The following edited email was sent to a group of interested colleagues, friends, and alumni.

February 19, 2004
Cape Town, South Africa

Dear friends,

We arrived in Cape Town last Sunday morning in time for church at the Cathedral. My afternoon was spent on a long walk around town and some exploration of the huge mall located right at the pier featuring just about every imaginable shop—from Armani to African craft stalls to bookstores stuffed with English books and magazines.

The next day was about as stark a contrast as you could imagine. I went on an SAS tour of the Amy Biehl Foundation. Amy Biehl was a Stanford graduate student finishing up a Fulbright in Capetown in 1993. She was working to register voters in the townships when she was murdered in Guguletu township. In the U.S. media it was presented as a random act by a mob of boys.

Our guide, Ntebeko, had a very  different take: the killing was a planned act of political violence, part of the Pan African Congress’s “one bullet, one settler” campaign. The PAC rejected negotiations over elections (which ultimately took place in 1994) and instead wanted to intensify the struggle. Killing police was not getting them anywhere, so they were looking for “soft targets” and determined to kill any white people who showed up in the area  that day. Biehl had been warned by black African friends that the township was not safe for her, but she was intent on her mission to register voters.

After her death, her parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, came to South Africa and vowed to continue her work here. They established the Amy Biehl Foundation, a non-governmental  organization that supports start-ups of various kinds of enterprises (a bakery, a golf driving range, to name two) in the townships and then spins them off when they become sustainable. The Foundation also has a very active HIV/AIDs campaign (Ntebeko heads up that part of the operation) and runs after-school programs and a kind of demonstration school.


"Biehl had been warned by black African friends that the township was not safe for her, but she was intent on her mission to register voters. After her death, her parents, Peter and Linda biehl, came to South Africa and vowed to continue her work here."

Mr. Biehl died last year, but Mrs. Biehl had been in South Africa only the day before we arrived. Ntebeko mentioned his concern that she was working too hard and was endangering her health. He believed that if  Mr. Biehl had taken better care of himself, instead of travelling all over to raise money for the Foundation, he would not have died so soon. Our guide also commented on the upcoming elections and his hope that the African National Congress party would win a big victory. He was clearly pleased with and proud of the new South Africa and the ANC’s role in shaping it.

After a brief visit to the Foundation offices (located in the American consulate) we went on a tour through part of Guguletu Township’s “informal settlement.” On one side of the road were row after row of tiny shacks made of scrap recycled wood or corrugated metal, with dirt “roads,” and a communal water faucet. But there’s plenty of evidence of infrastructure going in—we saw backhoes digging trenches for sewers. There are electric poles everywhere, each with a half dozen or so lines extending to surrounding houses. We wondered if the electricity was also “informal” or if there was, in fact, regular service. The houses had televisions and we heard lots of music emanating from within. (“Killing Me Softly” was one.) Some of the shacks were sites of small businesses—hair cutting, shoe repair, small engine repair (these people don’t participate in the planned obsolescence economy), fruit and  vegetable stands, and tiny cafes with the ever-present Coca-Cola signs.

On the other side of the main road were slightly larger houses, made of brick or concrete, with tiny front yards surrounded by four-foot-high fences, and some sporting security decals. Some had garages, some had tidy little flower gardens, occasionally there was the telltale sign of satellite TV, washing machines and clothes dryers. Here was the emerging black African middle class. Would that side of the street be able to extend itself across the street?

After lunch we heard Ntebeko’s vivid description of the struggle against apartheid. We followed Amy Biehl’s trail through the township and saw the spot where she was killed. Four young men were convicted and sentenced to 18 years each for her killing. When the Truth and Reconciliation process started, they came before the tribunal, claimed   that the murder of Amy Biehl had been a political act and part of the ongoing struggle, and were freed–-with the support of Linda and Peter Biehl!

After lunch one of the students asked Ntebeko how he came to work for the Amy Biehl Foundation.

“The things I’ve told you about,” he said, “are not things I read in books or heard on the news. They are things I know about firsthand. I was active in the PAC; I was a leader in Guguletu. I was one of the four men convicted in the murder of Amy Biehl.”

Ntebeko said he did not actually kill her himself but that he was known to have been a ringleader, and, in essence, “took the rap” (my phrase, not his) rather than betray his colleagues. He also said that while he certainly regretted the loss of life, he believed that the violence had been necessary to end apartheid.

Two of the four men convicted of murder now work for the foundation. One directs a sports program, and Ntebeko, as I’ve said, works in AIDS prevention/awareness and does the occasional tour, as he did for us. An amazing story.


Contact Professor Butler at:   butlerm@wabash.edu