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Working in their victim's name

From a mob that killed Amy Biehl in an anti-apartheid rage came two men, now forgiven, who serve her parents' charity.

October 21, 2008|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is a Times staff writer.

GUGULETU, SOUTH AFRICA — Easy Nofemela remembers the evening Amy Biehl died. Coal stoves from township shacks had painted the twilight a sooty gray, signaling a cold winter's night. Guguletu's main road throbbed with cars. And a mob of angry young men was looking for symbols of white rule to destroy.

Then the men spotted Biehl, blond and blue-eyed, as she drove through the township in her yellow Mazda.

"Rocks were being thrown at Amy's car. She got out and ran, and she was stabbed right over there," Nofemela says, pointing to a patch of grass next to a service station, now planted with a small cross.

Nofemela remembers, 15 years later, because he was part of the mob that killed Amy Biehl.

What he didn't know then was that Biehl was hardly a symbol of apartheid. She was a Fulbright scholar studying the lives of women in South Africa, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate with a plane ticket for home the next day, from an airport 10 minutes away.

Nofemela was one of four men convicted of murder for their actions that day. They spent nearly five years in prison before being granted amnesty in 1998 by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Today, Nofemela, a compact 37-year-old with a shaved head and a quick wit, is the father of a young girl. And, in an improbable tale of forgiveness and redemption, he and Ntobeko Peni, another of the men convicted of the murder, now work for the charity Biehl's parents founded here after she was killed.

It's a paradox that Linda Biehl, Amy's mother, prefers not to examine too closely.

"I don't know how it happened," she says, sipping coffee at a cafe near her home in Newport Beach. "I'm not going to begin to try to analyze it."

An engaging woman of 65 with a blond bob and a warm smile, she has grown exceptionally close to her daughter's killers. "Easy and Ntobeko are fascinating and I really do love them," she says. "They have given me so much."


Linda Biehl and her late husband, Peter, launched the Amy Biehl Foundation in 1994 with donations that arrived, unsolicited, from strangers moved by the news of their daughter's death. Today, it runs after-school programs for youngsters in Guguletu and other townships and squatter camps that took root during the apartheid era on the Cape flats, about 10 miles east of Cape Town.

"Our mission is to develop hope for children in the township and give them a future," says Kevin Chaplin, the foundation's managing director. "Our focus is to keep them away from violence and give them healthy activities that tap into the creative side of the brain."

The foundation operates out of donated office space in downtown Cape Town at the foot of Table Mountain, the picture-postcard city's most recognizable landmark. Tributes to Amy Biehl and the foundation's work paint the walls. A small television set loudly plays old news show clips of the Amy Biehl story -- her brutal death, her killers' convictions and amnesty, and the foundation's work -- for newly arrived volunteers.

Chaplin, 45, left a successful career with a South African bank two years ago to oversee the charity, which runs township classes in music, dance, drama, crafts and sports. "It's been the most satisfying time in my life," he says.

But it is the Biehl family's story, he says, that resonates here and abroad.

"A lot of people can't even forgive the little things," he says. "If the Biehls can forgive four young men for the death of their daughter, then there's no excuse for the rest of us. So we try to teach Amy Biehl's story -- that good can come out of tragedy. We're really teaching people about the power of forgiveness."

Amy Biehl had been in South Africa for nearly a year on that August evening in 1993, and she had amassed a wide circle of friends that included some of the nation's leading human rights lawyers and politicians, as well as township dwellers.

The country was nearing a historic moment. Nelson Mandela was free after 27 years in prison and his African National Congress was poised to take control in the first free elections, scheduled for April 1994. Blacks, who outnumbered whites 5 to 1, would be allowed to vote, ending four decades of white minority rule.

Biehl had been researching constitutions and bills of rights around the world for ANC leaders writing a new constitution, and she also was involved in voter education efforts. She had just completed her Fulbright paper, "Women in a Democratic South Africa: from Transition to Transformation."

But it was a bloody, restive period. Right-wing whites were engaged in a desperate effort to retain power. Four months before Biehl's death, a white supremacist had killed Chris Hani, the leader of the ANC's armed wing, in the driveway of his home. Radical black groups, such as the Pan Africanist Congress, or PAC, were waging their own violent war against symbols of white rule, unconvinced that the government truly intended to give up power and suspicious of the ANC's plan for a multiracial democracy.

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