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STANFORD COLLEAGUES PLAN MEMORIAL TO AMY BIEHL
STANFORD -- Stanford graduate Amy Biehl, who was first drawn into study of African democratic movements while writing an honors thesis here, was attacked and killed Aug. 25 in South Africa.
Biehl, 26, was one of thousands of victims and the first American to die in the violence associated with South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy, a transition she was studying on a Fulbright scholarship.
Friends and colleagues of Biehl's at Stanford are planning a memorial service for her at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7, in Memorial Church. Her family also has set up a scholarship and summer fellowship program at Stanford in her honor. (See accompanying story.)
The scholarship fund represents a second step by Stanford to develop an ongoing exchange program with the University of the Western Cape, where Biehl was based at the time of her death. (Stanford sent its first graduate student, Victor Provenzano, to teach at UWC in July and a second is tentatively scheduled to go later this year, said political science Professor David Abernethy. The Biehl scholarship would provide financial aid for a UWC graduate or undergraduate to study at Stanford.)
After a childhood in New Mexico and Southern California, Biehl entered Stanford in 1985, taking a course each year on Africa and graduating in 1989 with a degree in international relations.
She was also a member of the Stanford diving team and served as captain during her senior year. In 1988, she placed second in the Pac-10 Championships on the 10-meter tower. Diving coach Rick Schavone said that in his 18 years, "Amy Biehl was the most outstanding person I've ever coached." She joined the program as a walk-on, then worked hard and persevered, he said. "She was capable of doing anything that she set her mind to."
Just before her death, Biehl, who was white, was driving black friends home to New Crossroads township in the western Cape of South Africa from a good-bye party for herself. Their car was stopped by a street demonstration in Guguletu township, where a group of youths smashed the car windows with stones and bricks. When she fled with her passengers, some of the youths chased her down and stabbed her repeatedly to the head, according to press reports.
Her attackers referred to Biehl as a "settler," a term that suggests she was at least initially mistaken for a white South African, said Larry Diamond, a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the African Studies Committee at Stanford. Diamond, on an African lecture tour, had visited Biehl in Capetown three weeks before her death and had worked with her recently by telephone on the details of her admission to Rutgers, where she was to start work toward a doctorate this month.
"There is a relatively small, extremely militant political fringe group in the black community in South Africa called the Pan Africanist Congress that has been more inclined to commit violence against whites," Diamond told reporters at a hastily-arranged campus press conference on the day following Biehl's death. Two teen-agers with ties to the Pan Africanist Congress were arrested Aug. 26, the same day a large memorial service was held for Biehl at the University of the Western Cape.
Biehl's death occurred during a six-week period in which more than 1,000 people were killed in South Africa, said Ihron Rensburg, a graduate student in the School of Education who is former general secretary of the National Education Coordinating Committee in South Africa and a member of the African National Congress. He described the situation in the western Cape as "fluid and risky," noting that nine people were killed in a recent bombing of a "colored" church in a suburb of Capetown and that black residents had turned back two recent attempts by white parties to stage meetings in their townships.
Biehl was on a Fulbright scholarship to study South Africans' preparation for post-apartheid elections and women's role in democratization, said history Professor Kennell Jackson, who had recommended her for the scholarship and had served as her adviser on her undergraduate honors thesis about Chester Crocker's role in Namibian independence.
"Chester Crocker was the Reagan administration's undersecretary for African affairs and a fairly influential figure in the Western approach to southern Africa issues," Jackson said, and Biehl's thesis became "something of an underground classic," because it was the first academic work to narrate transition events there. The 150-page thesis focuses on Crocker's influence and how his policies were adapted and reworked by Namibians, Jackson said.
Among those she interviewed for the study, he said, were Crocker, former Secretary of State George Shultz and a number of Scandinavians involved in United Nations work in Namibia.
After graduation, Biehl went to work in Washington, D.C., eventually joining the staff of the National Democratic Institute, an organization of the Democratic Party that promotes democracy around the world.
Traveling with democracy monitoring groups, she had met Jimmy Carter and had been to Africa about 10 times, Jackson said, when she returned to campus about a year ago for a visit.
"She regaled me with all these stories of people and their interests, of a beer she had with this person, of a tea at another African's home, of a woman leader I had to pay attention to in the future . . . in Zimbabwe," he said. She also demonstrated an African dance she had mastered.
Jackson said he was left with the impression that "she had a tremendous capacity for making friends, for holding friends and for doing it in these very tight or strait-jacketed ideological situations. . . ."
"She put faces on events and made me aware of the fact that behind what we call democracy movements . . . there are these kinds of people that move things forward."
Diamond and Michael McFaul, a research assistant at the Center for International Security and Arms Control, agreed that Biehl impressed them with her ability to treat people as individuals while still studying larger social issues.
"She blended, in a way that I was often envious, her academic work and her engagement with the real world," said McFaul, who met Biehl when he was asked to be the second reader on her honors thesis, because his own dissertation was on Namibia. Later, he said, she got him a job with the National Democratic Institute, and they kept in touch by mail and courier while he worked on democratic transitions in Russia.
"I think oftentimes people like myself, sitting in places like this, are very far from the realities of [New] Crossroads, or the realities of Angola or Namibia," McFaul told reporters at the campus press conference. "Amy was very determined to make those two things come together. She was an incredible person."
In South Africa, Diamond said, Biehl was "determined not to live within a white prison. She sought out means of socializing and coming to understanding the black communities and the colored communities in the area."
He noted, for example, that Biehl's co-author on a recent article she had published in a South African magazine was Brigitte Mabandla, a member of the African National Congress' team for negotiating a new national constitution. In the article, Biehl and Mabandla point out the problems of securing equity for women in a country where some groups seek autonomous states based on cultural, religious or ethnic identities. They called upon "progressive traditional leaders to help re-interpret traditional values and discard those which oppress women."
Another of Biehl's friends told Diamond, he said, that she had made an "offhand remark about this horrible cycle of political violence and [said that] if anything should ever happen to her, she wouldn't want to be singled out for acknowledgment or special consideration - that this was a social and institutionalized problem that we had to come to grips with. . . .
"Personally, I think it's important that we give attention to herself," Diamond said, "as a way of understanding not only an extraordinary individual but the fact that there are real and special people being killed, every one of the thousands that have been killed in the political violence there."
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