In South Africa, an improbable tale of forgiveness
Men convicted in woman's death aid family's efforts
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 himself 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 in Guguletu 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, Calif. "I'm not going to begin to try to analyze it."
An engaging woman of 65, 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 sprawling 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."
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 in Cape Town. "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."
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.
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.
Biehl was driving three friends to their homes in Guguletu that day, when a mob numbering about 80 spilled out of a PAC rally chanting the group's battle cry: "One settler, one bullet." In the group's argot, settlers were white people, 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.
In 1997, the killers applied for a pardon before the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 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.
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."
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.
Nofemela 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."