‘My daughter’s killers are like my children’

2014-12-28 15:00

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“They drive me absolutely mad,” Linda Biehl roars with frustrated laughter.

We’re in a comfortable hotel room in central Cape Town and Biehl is talking about Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela – two of the four men who, in August 1993, stabbed and stoned her daughter, Amy, to death.

Biehl is flipping through her phone looking for pictures of Peni and Nofemela, who are supposed to accompany her to New Mexico’s CG Jung Institute to deliver a lecture.

There are visa issues, though not because of their 1994 murder convictions (the men were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s).

One has his new passport, but now needs to find the old one to organise the visa.

“This is what I go through,” she says with mock hysteria.

“You’re talking about your daughter’s killers as if they are your own children,” I say, incredulously. She’s heard this before.

“In many ways, they are my children. But don’t tell them that. They’re, like, 40 now!”

Amy Biehl was 26 when she was murdered in Gugulethu less than a year before South Africa’s first democratic elections.

She was living in Cape Town as a Fulbright scholar, studying the role of women and gender rights during South Africa’s transition.

Her killers were Pan Africanist Student Organisation members returning from a political meeting. It was the time of “one settler, one bullet” and the blonde, white woman driving two colleagues home was a symbolic target.

Vusumzi Ntamo, Peni, Nofemela and Mongezi Manqina were convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Biehl saw her daughter’s killers for the first time at their trial and remembers them all: Nofemela, Peni, Manqina (“a really tough guy with attitude”) and Ntamo (“who had the mental age of a nine-year-old”).

After they were granted amnesty – Biehl and her husband, Peter, supported their application – the four had their convictions overturned and were freed in 1998.

“They were so skinny when they got out of prison. Now Ntobeko is quite prosperous and Easy has filled out a lot ... Yes, they do grow up like your own kids,” says Biehl.

Nofemela and Peni took up the Biehls’ offer to help and to find them work. Since then, the men have been involved with the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, which is aimed at “spreading Amy’s magic” in a range of community projects.

Peter died of cancer in 2002 and his wife continues the foundation’s work. Cape Town is now her second home. She describes Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as her mentor. She knew the rainbow nation’s first justice minister, Dullah Omar, well and counts South Africa’s outgoing US ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool, struggle stalwarts Ahmed Kathrada and Albie Sachs, and former justice minister Brigitte Mabandla among her friends.

But her real reason for visiting is to see Nofemela and Peni.

“Ntobeko picked us up when we arrived and Easy was here the next morning. I always see them when I’m here. Ntobeko is married with three daughters. The kids call me MaKhulu [grandmother]. I take them to the Cape Town City Ballet and they hold my hand.

“Ntobeko has an amazing house and is an excellent cook. He works as programme manager of the foundation and has also started a laundromat called the Butterfly Laundry.”

She finds photos on her phone. “Look, this is his house. They had such a busy day on Saturday.”

She says Peni is a reserved and quiet person, “a deep thinker”.

“Ntobeko and Easy lived just down the street from each other as kids. Ntobeko’s granny raised him. She died while he was in prison. Relatives used to steal his pay cheques, so he’s had to be secretive and a loner.”

She says Nofemela is different. “He had a big family unit. Both parents worked. Dad was a street committee chair. He is married with a daughter of 11. He works mostly as a driver for the foundation. He’s sometimes in trouble for not showing up and he never has airtime on his phone ... but he’s a fun and loving guy.”

After a long conversation, I still find it hard to understand her decision to befriend her daughter’s killers.

“We had a choice. We didn’t have to come and learn about this place. But we knew Amy. We know what legacy she wanted to leave: one of peace, restorative justice and harmony. She would not have been happy if we had become bitter, ugly, unhappy people. That would have been a huge disappointment to her.”

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