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Glass Bottles

August 24, 2009

Friday. August 7, 2009

She laughs. Then as though oddly aware of an audience, “We have fun together. Does that sound strange?” We shake our heads, but I guess, “It does to some people.”  It didn’t sound so strange though. Not now.

She was dressed well. A freshly ironed white blouse, large red beads laying heavy on her chest and an orange sweater slung over her shoulders.  Her hair was bleached, sitting right below her chin. She didn’t look quite American, but the accent gave her away. He sat next to her, his dark skin in sharp contrast to hers.  His dress was simple; a dark blue polo, dark pants.  He seemed quiet, reserved.  He must have been nearly twenty years her junior.  But when they smiled, they weren’t such an odd couple.

As a formality she introduced herself: “I’m Linda Biehl.  And this, is Ntobeko.”  But of course, we already knew.

The room was cozy, but familiar.  Located on the tenth floor of the ABSA bank building down town, the Desmond Tutu Peace Center is unpresumptuous.  We first heard this story here, on a taped CNN report from ’96.  Amy Biehl, a Fulbright scholar and Stanford graduate, was studying politics and democracy in Cape Town in the early 90’s.  She was bright, driven, and passionate.  The connections she made working in Washington DC aided her labor in pushing South Africa towards a democratic government.  Nearing the end of her two-year stint, she was brutally killed while dropping off friends in the black township, Kayalitcha.  The story got international press, and the four men responsible for her senseless murder were eventually detained.  When the Apartheid government was overthrown, these men were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation trials (TRC) led by Desmond Tutu.  Amy’s parents traveled to South Africa for the trials, and asked for amnesty for their daughter’s killers, because “that’s what Amy would have wanted.”  Following the release of the men, Linda and Paul Biehl started the Amy Biehl foundation in Cape Town. The mission is to provide support to schools in the townships through after school programming and enrichment programs.  Soon after it’s formation, one of the four murderers came to work for the organization.  Ntobeko now co-operates the NGO with Linda.  This is a story about forgiveness, and the nearly incomprehensible ability of a mother to pardon her daughter’s killer.  It is a story of inexplicable virtue and reformation, or at least, isn’t it pretty to think so.

“Many people think the story begins on the 25th of August, 1993.  But it began long before that.” Ntobeko starts calmly, softly.  “Apartheid was a day to day activity, a reality.”  Growing up in the black townships at the time, you became involved in a resistance movement quite young, it’s just what you did.  When you got to school age you began to realize what was going on, you began to realize that life was not fair.  Some days there would be “police shooting at high school students. And some kids die.  And you go home and tell your parents, and they are not shocked.”  When you are growing up there are many things that you must go without.  We often went to school without lunch.  But the one thing that you could not forget was your Vaseline.  “It was the only thing you could not afford to leave.  Because as you run from the tear gas the police are shooting, you rub it on your eyes and nose and mouth.  Because when you are young the gas stings and your throat closes up, and you stop breathing… So we began to fight for the cause.”

This was the story we came to hear.  The one that rarely gets told.  The one that starts with Mace and glass bottles.  “Before there were plastic bottles, water was delivered in glass bottles. In Primary school we began to collect those bottles.  We would gather those bottles and bring them to KTC- the mother of all informal settlements.”  The children were selected for the job because they didn’t need passbooks to travel around, and they looked less suspicious.  “They would use those bottles to make petrol bombs that they would throw at police cars… Those glass bottles played a huge roll in our independence.”  As you got older you became more involved in the anti-Apartheid movement.  “We were students by day and militants by night. Most of us were not armed.  We were told to go to the hardware store, buy a hammer and put it in your book bag.  Then when you are walking home and you saw a policeman, then you hit home in the head, and you are armed.”  His face contracts remembering, though the words are tired.  And in some sense, Apartheid is still part of his reality.

As political tensions rose in the country, the townships became more and more violent. “The goal was to make South Africa totally ungovernable.” It was planned, strategic and as well organized as any governance.  “Amy died under Operation Great Storm. The mission was to shoot and kill before you were shot.” He explains slowly.  “We buried who we really were for the cause.  We were to save, suffer, sacrifice. You get to a point when you are willing to die for the cause.  And then you get to a point when you are willing to kill for the cause. You pick up the spear of the fallen soldier and you carry on.”  And so Amy died because she was white.  Because she represented the policemen, the need for Vaseline, the lack of jobs, the need for passbooks, the poverty, the violence and the separation.  She wasn’t the first to die for the cause. She wasn’t the last.  She was just, American.

“Everyone asks how you reconciled Mrs. Biehl.  But I’m curious, how did you reconcile with killing someone Ntobeko?” Theresa hesitates.

Linda smiles, and Ntobeko pauses, choosing his words like brushstrokes to canvas.  “The turning point was when I stood in front of the TRC.  They asked me, ‘If you were granted amnesty, what kind of life would you lead?’ And I thought about it.  When Linda and Paul spoke, asking that we be given amnesty I thought they could not be her biological parents. Parents don’t forgive like that. And I went back to my cell that night and tried and understand why.  That forgiveness was most important to me; more than the decision of the TRC. Not those 18 years I would serve, because I knew I could shoulder it. I was in prison, and I didn’t lose my soul.” The two look at each other, knowing each other.  “There was a formal TRC… but this process [of reconciliation] is so important. All the stories, all the day to day activities, they are part of it.”

“If we had not gone through the TRC we would not be sitting here right now.  And we would be missing so much.  It was an institutionalized process that allowed for personal reconciliation.” Linda picked up.  “One of Desmond Tutu’s gifts to me is to learn to laugh, and take joy and not look at yourself with pity.” She searches our faces.  “As much as there was horrific stuff done here, you can search down to the bedrock and find Ububtu in this country.  It should be a shining light to the rest of the world on what can be possible.”

This was the story we came to hear. The one about struggle and separation and liberty and reconciliation.  Amy’s death brought international attention to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. “Amy always told me that she would rather be a number than a name.  She would cut out news paper clippings: ‘100 blacks dead’ ‘9 blacks killed’ ’13 coloreds, 5 blacks dead.’  But anytime a white person was killed they had a full article with names and families and occupations included.”  While it’s her name that’s been immortalized, she was the 1 who brought the world face to face with Apartheid.  It is this context that creates the content of her story.  And so it’s not so strange, not now, that they would laugh together, Linda and Ntobeko.

.   .   .

Part 3 of 3

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Bernie permalink
    August 31, 2009 2:50 am


    You are one heck of a professional writer already. With your photography skills plus you writing ability, you are going to be able to name your job. Keep up the blog, and have a great time. Bernie

  2. Victoria permalink
    September 1, 2009 11:16 pm

    Wow Cate dear…you are having some absolutely spectacular experiences! I’m so glad you got into the South Africa program and quite excited for all the new worldviews you’re being exposed to.

    I’m crossing my fingers that you might be back in Portland at some point during the winter so I can see you and hear more about your cross-cultural experiences in person. I’ll be home all December and most of January in between my time in Peru and Barcelona.

    love you!

  3. Ben permalink
    September 8, 2009 7:20 am

    Oh my gosh. OH MY GOSH Cate. We were talking about you going bungee jumping and how I want to follow in your foot steps…. well at least foot steps off of a bridge, and Mom told me I wasn’t allowed to go…ha!

    I miss you so much and I can’t wait for you to get home.

    I haven’t had a chance (unfortunately) to read your blog extensively (school and all) but I love your pictures and am going to make time to read it because everyone has been raving about it and I guess I care. (Not that much though so don’t go and get an ego!)

    I saw the video of the Zulu dance. That was very cool but what was the tribe like? I did a project on the Zulu tribe and am pretty intrigued by them and their history.

    Love you sometimes,

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