ST. ANDREWS PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in Newport Beach, Calif., is charged with emotion as many of the more than 700 mourners are weeping. They have come to pay tribute to Amy Biehl, a 26-year-old idealist who 10 months ago went off to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, determined to work for racial justice. On Aug. 25 she was killed by an angry mob of black youths who saw her merely as white—a symbol of the oppression she had come to help change. The cruel irony is not lost on either her grieving family or Melanie Jacobs, 30, Amy’s mixed-race roommate from Cape Town who brought her ashes home to Newport Beach. “If you pray for Amy,” Jacobs tells her fellow mourners, “please also pray for my country.” As an integrated choir from South Africa sings two songs to honor Amy—one in Zulu, the other in English—Biehl’s 16-year-old brother, Zach, drops his head on his sister Kim’s shoulder and begins to sob.
Though increasing numbers of blacks and whites have been killed in South Africa’s deepening turmoil, Biehl’s death, as the first American casualty in the country’s ongoing conflict, seemed especially galling. Not only was she killed by those she was trying to help—she had been developing voter education programs for the country’s first multiracial election next year—but she also died just two days before she was to return to the U.S. to embark on a promising future.
Biehl had graduated in 1989 from Stanford, where she was a top student and captain of the diving team. She was to resume her studies in international relations this fall at Rutgers. Scott Meinert, 28, her sweetheart of six years and a third-year law school student at Willamette University in Oregon, says, “Amy treated everyone the same. When she met someone, black or white, she never had an ounce of doubt that person was the same as she was.” Although he describes her as a liberal and a feminist, Meinert says Amy was also a traditionalist. He had intended to ask her to many him, but he adds, “I knew she wouldn’t accept my proposal until I got down on one knee, brought out the champagne and did it right.”
Living in a Cape Town suburb and working with women’s groups in the strife-ridden black townships, Biehl was not unaware of the risks she ran. But she was confident that her rapport with South African blacks would protect her. What she confronted on the afternoon she died, however, was blind racial hatred. As she often did after leaving the University of the Western Cape, she had given a lift in her beat-up yellow Mazda to two black women she knew and a young mixed-race man. Unknown to her, scores of angry youths shouting slogans of the radical Pan-Africanists were also roaming the township of Guguletu, where the women lived.
“We just rode into the mess,” says Evaron Orange, 19, Biehl’s male passenger. “When we realized what was happening, it was too late. They pelted the car with bricks. We jumped out. They chased all of us, but most of them went for her. I asked one guy what should I do, and he said, ‘No, they don’t want you, they want the settler [white person].’ We tried to say she was a student, but it was too late. They didn’t want to understand.” Hit in the face with a brick. Amy was chased down, kicked and stabbed in the head, neck and chest.
Although Cape Town police have since arrested—though not formally charged—two young men in connection with Amy’s murder, and political leaders on all sides have condemned the killing, some radical students in the townships continue to shout, “One settler, one bullet!” Meanwhile, Amy’s family and friends must cope with their loss. Meinert, for one, who deeply admired Amy’s commitment to human rights, says, “So much of what she stood for is now in me. I’ve had my life taken away from me—everything is gone now. When Amy and I were together, we were so alive.”
As for a stoic Peter and Linda Biehl, they will promote their daughter’s ideals in South Africa through several scholarship funds. They also plan to visit her friends and colleagues in Cape Town. “We expect we’ll go in about a month or so,” says Linda. “We are confident that Amy’s work will not die. We are going to see that it doesn’t.”
BARBARA WHITAKER in Johannesburg and JAMIE RENO in Newport Beach