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PERSPECTIVE ON SOUTH AFRICA : The Triumph of Decency Awaits : Amy Biehl dedicated herself to goodness in a land of savagery. Now black and white cry out together: No more!

August 29, 1993|ANTHONY HAZLITT HEARD | Anthony Hazlitt Heard is former editor of the Cape Times.

CAPE TOWN — There is something demeaning about living in a country, that, by rights, should be a key player in the world but slides on toward endemic violence.

South Africa has immense potential for good, vast capacity for evil. Its history is blood-soaked, with all of its major population groups having waged dirty war against others at one time or other.

Enforced, statutory apartheid came along in 1948 and engulfed everyone. It led to countless deaths, removals, detentions and exiles.

With apartheid's end heralded by the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, there was optimism that the bloodlust was over, that society would open, that the economy would bloom--that South Africa might even become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

A bonus: The world was changed, the Soviet threat gone. Surely this would be a time of unity and consolidation, in South Africa and elsewhere.

But, as petty nationalisms rose up abroad to threaten the prospect of peace, inside South Africa, little Robespierres fashioned by apartheid were about to begin their own mayhem. They were black and angry. They had had no education worth speaking of, no youth, no means to the good life, no hope. Only police raids, torture, bulldozed homes, abuse, brutality. Even before reaching their teens, some were commanding armies of street thugs. There was an icy determination not to suffer their parents' humiliations.

Some other countries had a similar problem, but confined to a small sector of the population. In South Africa, blacks dominate numerically, and nearly 70% of black youth are classified as having little hope of entering society in an orderly way. Put bluntly, they live by thuggery. Some are members of extremist political youth organizations, others just criminals. They are the despair of parents. Most are rescuable, but some are lost for good. If whites get in their way in the townships, they die.

And so they killed Amy Biehl last Wednesday. They picked her out as a white among four people fleeing from a stoned car. Some yelled that the "settler" must die. It was almost a "Clockwork Orange" celebration of gore. It made ordinary South Africans sick in their stomachs.

Amy Biehl had dedicated herself to the cause of fairness for women and blacks. Her death, more than any, has galvanized those in the country who are determined to ward off a Bosnia and to hit back against the reign of terror in the townships. As a daring gesture of solidarity with Amy, her university friends and colleagues solemnly walked afterward to the place where she had been stabbed, stoned and kicked. They were saying to the thugs: We demand the freedom to walk peaceably in the townships, as we have before.

Even judged by the crudest scales of brutality, there is no logic, no rationale in Amy Biehl's death. She could not have been further removed from the racist gauleiters of the apartheid days who lorded it over blacks in the townships. She was not even that brand of indifferent, polite English-speaking South African, intent on making money and, if necessary, flitting to safer shores, but meanwhile living well and indulging in genteel sport like cricket. She was not an uppity immigrant seeking the good life in the African sun, based on black sweat and cheap wages.

She was not even one of us.

She was a talented, warmhearted American, who could have enjoyed the best offered by her rich and varied homeland and sailed into academe, law or any pursuit she chose. Yet she came to our land, and she tried to help us.

She worked at a liberationist campus, the University of the Western Cape, which is highly sensitive to the vast socioeconomic reconstruction ahead.

Hours before she died, she was seen on the campus checking the fingers of students, which had been marked to ensure that they did not vote twice in student elections. Over lunch the next day in the university dining room, there was a chilling moment when two visitors present suddenly realized that it was she who had cheerfully shown them how to use the vote-detection equipment. "That was Amy," said someone. The table fell silent. "She was lovely," said one visitor. "Yes," said the other. There was nothing more to say.

The speakers were black South Africans, from the university town of Alice in the Eastern Cape. The reputedly militant local secretary of the African National Congress, Tony Yengeni, muttered to me through clenched teeth, "This is a disaster." Amy's death was already unifying South Africans across the color line.

Yet the shock remains. Her close friends of all colors still walk around in disbelief--and there is a very personal anger in blacks' voices as they mourn.

The people of Cape Town, the lovely city that hopes to host the Olympics in 2004, are shamed that such a thing could happen in their midst. It follows only weeks after a massacre in a suburban church that left 11 worshipers dead. Anger is heard in spontaneous conversations everywhere.

Amid the anger and the sadness comes news of the next indiscriminate horror: the shooting up of a luxury bus on the way from Cape Town to Johannesburg, with eight injured.

It could get worse.

Whether it can be ascribed to an inherent brutality born in some people or to a brutality acquired by circumstances is not directly relevant. The effect is the same. It has driven ordinary people to the point where they are saying: No further.

Some women have said: "You have struck a woman. You have dislodged a boulder. You will be crushed."

There was a sense of triumph over savagery when Amy's friends marched fearlessly, contemptuous of the young thugs now on the run, and placed spring flowers at the spot where she fell.

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