South African killers now work on behalf of their victim

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.

Biehl was driving friends home in Guguletu that day, when a mob of about 80 spilled out of a rally chanting the PAC's battle cry: "One settler, one bullet." In the group's argot, settlers were whites, specifically the white Afrikaners who had settled in South Africa 350 years earlier and, in 1948, had imposed the system of racial separation known as apartheid.

Witnesses later identified three members of the mob, including Nofemela, 22 at the time, and they were charged and convicted of murder. The prosecution asked for the death penalty, but the judge sentenced them to 18 years in prison, saying he thought they had a chance to become useful citizens "despite the fact that they have shown no remorse." A few months later, Peni, 20 at the time of the attack, was arrested, convicted and also sentenced to 18 years.

The Biehls thought the matter had been put to rest. But in 1997, four years after their daughter's death, the killers applied for a pardon before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Biehls asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, head of the commission, what they should do. "Just come and speak from your heart and talk about Amy," he said.

At the hearing, the men admitted their role in the killing and said they believed they had to kill whites to make South Africa "ungovernable" and force the government to relinquish power.

The Biehls read from their daughter's high school valedictory address and spoke of her commitment to helping South Africa. But they extended an olive branch too. "We come to South Africa as Amy came, in a spirit of committed friendship," Peter Biehl said. "And make no mistake about it, extending a hand of friendship in a society which has been systematically polarized for decades is hard work at times."

Outside the hearing, the four men approached the Biehls and shook their hands. "They asked our forgiveness," Linda Biehl recalls. "Ntobeko told us that when we forgave him, he didn't care if he got amnesty because he had just been freed."

All four men won pardons in 1998, and a year later the Biehls went to see Nofemela and Peni in Guguletu. "It was like an adoption," Linda Biehl recalls. "That kind of broke the barrier. These were just children who didn't have a chance to have a childhood."

She's never asked them what role they played in Amy's death; she assumes they did little more than throw rocks, as they acknowledged during their amnesty hearings. (Another of the four men had confessed to stabbing Amy. He wound up back in prison on an unrelated charge.)

After prison, Peni had started an organization to help former anti-apartheid activists acquire skills such as bricklaying and plumbing. He persuaded the Biehl Foundation to help support his organization and, three years ago, he went to work there. He was recently promoted to program director and supervises a core staff of 16, including Nofemela.

Nofemela emerged from prison to become a community leader in Guguletu, where he battled for government money to replace shacks and bring plumbing and electricity to the township. A onetime soccer star, he now coordinates the foundation's instruction in soccer, cricket, field hockey and other sports -- some at his old school, a few dozen yards from where Biehl died.

Surrounded daily by tributes to Biehl, the two men wrestle with conflicting feelings about their role in her death. There is remorse over the loss of an innocent life, but there also is an abiding sense that their motives were pure.

"Deep down, it was very difficult for me to accept my own actions," Peni recalls in his office at the foundation. A baby-faced man of 35, Peni now has two daughters, ages 1 and 5.

"I felt I had contributed to a new South Africa and that what I did was done for a political reason," Peni says. "But when I thought of Amy. . . . " He pauses. "One has to find peace within in order to live. It's odd, but sometimes people who offer forgiveness are so disappointed when the people they forgive cannot forgive themselves. This foundation helped me forgive myself."

Nofemela is a charismatic quipster who is hugely popular with the youngsters. He doesn't see his role in Biehl's death and now her legacy as a contradiction. She was, like him, a victim of a political war.

"I will never run away from the fact that the oppression in South Africa was done by white people," he says. "The white man was prepared to kill. I also was prepared to kill.

"But now, I'm working to spread the spirit of Amy."

The irony of his words hang in the air. He closes his eyes before continuing. "Sometimes," he says, "things happen in an unexpected way."

Scott Kraft is a Times staff writer.

scott.kraft@latimes.com

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