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Biehl's Living Legacy Gets Boost From Killers' Release

S. Africa: Amnesty eases tensions in township where foundation carries on work in name of slain student.

July 30, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUGULETU, South Africa — Amy Biehl is back in the black township where she was murdered five years ago. But this time the Newport Beach exchange student can be found in the knitting of Aluta Sukula, the traditional dances of Keitty Sohena and the sheer determination of Matilda Mabena.

The three schoolgirls are among hundreds of blacks, young and old, who have been inspired by Biehl's example of racial tolerance. And with the pardoning this week of her confessed killers, they and many others here have found new reason to tell her story.

"They were throwing stones at her over there, and she was crying and pleading for help," said Matilda, 14, pointing to a patch of grass near a gas station on her way home from school. "My parents have told me all about her. They killed her because she was white. I am going to be different. I can live with whites. I could even live in the same house with whites."

Wednesday was the first full day of freedom for the four men convicted of killing Biehl in August 1993, but it was also the first day of Biehl's newfound legacy in the wind-swept Cape flats where she died.

Even with the huge sympathy her brutal death generated here and across South Africa, Guguletu had been holding its breath for the past year as a government commission considered the amnesty applications of the killers.

The men had been serving 18-year prison sentences but requested pardons under the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, saying they killed Biehl for political, not criminal, reasons. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission agreed, releasing the four Tuesday after ruling that the slaying was intended to destabilize the former white-minority regime.

The killers' celebrated return home has many South Africans questioning the wisdom of the amnesty provisions, but for the people of this ever-troubled township, it has meant breathing more easily. More than 700 people have been slain in Guguletu since Biehl was stoned and stabbed to death, but none of the killings has resonated like this one.

"If they hadn't been released, we would have faced problems," said Sophia Benge, who runs an after-school skills center for Guguletu children supported by a foundation created by Biehl's family. "But now, with this sacrifice, there will only be gain. Support for Amy Biehl is everywhere."

Benge said the forgiving hearts of Biehl's parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, have ensured that the slain Fulbright scholar's death will be remembered in Guguletu as a seminal act of reconciliation, not racial hatred. Although they attended the amnesty hearings, the Biehls did not oppose the applications for pardons, insisting that South Africans must be free to do what is necessary to set their new democracy on course.

"It was very tense before yesterday, but when I looked at the television and saw [the prisoners' release], there was cheering from the children," said Benge, who taught vocational skills to children in nearby Philippi for 11 years before joining the Biehl foundation. At the service station where Biehl was attacked while driving three friends home, a 23-year-old man still studying for his high school diploma complained about having lost so many years to the struggle against apartheid. His wide grin is short an occasional molar, but Noel Mguqulwa said he is determined to finish school and become Guguletu's first black dentist.

His black high school teachers tell him it will never happen. His family is doubtful too. But Mguqulwa, who never met Biehl, said the woman who was attacked just a few yards from where he was gassing up his multicolored van might have said something different.

"Things are changing here. White people can come and nothing will happen to them," Mguqulwa said. "Why can't a black man become a dentist?"

The Amy Biehl Foundation Trust, officially launched in December during a visit to Guguletu by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has about 20 programs in the works in the Cape flats, funded by the U.S. government and private donations. But as in the community itself, director Sheila Roquitte said, the amnesty applications weighed on the organization's work, which is directed at promoting nonviolence among the 300,000 residents of Cape Town's largest black township.

"This amnesty issue has been hanging over our heads for the past year," she said. "The Biehls are happy to have it out of the way."

The Biehls visit South Africa every other month or so to oversee the foundation's activities and to promote its message. On their most recent stay, they helped launch a first-aid course for Guguletu police officers and an after-school program at the Intshinga Primary School, a strip of dusty, yellow-brick buildings a few blocks from where their daughter was killed.

"This is easy," said 8-year-old Aluta Sukula, as the mindful hands of her knitting instructor guided the girl's needles into a purl stitch. About two dozen other girls and boys worked quietly on their first project: a bag for schoolbooks.

The rhythmic pounding of a drum in the classroom next door kept the beat to a traditional Xhosa dance. Her bare feet skipping across the cold concrete, Keitty Sohena, 14, eagerly talked about the woman in whose name the dance class has come together.

"I have a photo of Amy Biehl with me and my mother when she visited us once," Keitty said. "When I heard she had died, I started to cry. It is not right to kill someone because of their color. But I think life will be better for me."

On her first visit to the after-school program last week, Linda Biehl was sought out by one of the 170 children enrolled in the knitting, dance and art classes. After they spoke, Roquitte said, Biehl and the 12-year-old quietly hugged.

The girl was the sister of Mongezi Christopher Manqina, who along with Vusumzi Samuel Ntamo, Easy Mzikhona Nofemela and Ntobeko Ambrose Peni killed Amy Biehl.

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