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From murder comes reconciliation, hope

Programs help South Africans in slain Californian's memory

Amy Biehl
Amy Biehl traveled to South Africa as a Fulbright scholar, studying law and registering voters before being killed outside Cape Town.
See the human impact of terrorism, as Paula Zahn talks to relatives of brutal murder victims on Thursday, December 9, at 8 p.m. ET.
South Africa
Amy Biehl
Nelson Mandela

(CNN) -- In South African townships rife with violence and poverty, thousands of children find comfort and knowledge daily after school by dancing, playing, painting and eating. They study math, reading, music, theater and more, while their older countrymen learn first aid, safe-sex practices, vocational and other life skills.

Above all, these and many other programs run by the Amy Biehl Foundation offer hope -- a sentiment born, ironically, from a horrific murder.

Reconciliation is fundamental to the organization's roots -- the sense that led Amy Biehl's parents not only to forgive her killers but also embrace them to foster her humanitarian legacy.

On August 25, 1993, Amy, a Stanford University graduate and Fulbright scholar, left her job working to register (mostly black) voters in South Africa. She headed toward Guguletu, outside Cape Town, to drop off two female colleagues. There, a mob stoned her car, then kicked, beat and stabbed her. Amy died on the pavement, begging for mercy.

A world away in Newport Beach, California, her parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, received the devastating phone call. But in their grief, they also found purpose, creating and running a foundation to help those in the Cape Town area, much as Amy had done.

"The hardest [part] was the huge void and the sadness," Linda Biehl, whose husband, Peter, died of complications from colon cancer in 2002, told CNN's Paula Zahn about her daughter's death. "... But I have to say that I feel she's opened doors.

Linda added, "She would expect me to be the person I am, but grow enough to embrace the causes and interest in the love to a people that she embraced."

'Racism in its crudest form'

The valedictorian of her Newport Harbor High School class, Amy Biehl headed north from Orange County to Stanford in Palo Alto. She took a deep interest in South Africa, using her Fulbright scholarship to research and study law at the University of the Western Cape.

"She had a sparkling personality and, like any young 26-year-old, she lived life pretty fully," her mother told CNN's "Paula Zahn Now."

Amy's 10 months in Cape Town overlapped with a dramatic period in South African history. In 1990, President F.W. de Clerk released African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela following 27 years in captivity. The move signaled the demise of the apartheid system that had favored whites and denigrated blacks for decades.

Rapid change and intense, often pent-up feelings marked the early 1990s in South Africa, where sharp political and social divides had contributed to mass inequalities. Amy devoted herself to helping educate and enroll throngs of previously disenfranchised voters in advance of the 1994 election.

"She would say ... if something happens to me over there, I'd rather be a number than a name because ... black people were always reported in the newspapers as numbers -- 11 killed there -- [whereas] when a white person was killed, there would be a name," Linda recalled.

Church service
A service at Guguletu's St. Gabriel's Church, a five-minute walk from where Amy was killed, honored her days after her death.

But Amy's labors and her life ended just short of the vote that brought Mandela to power -- and days before her return to the United States, where she planned to pursue a doctorate degree at Rutgers University. Her boyfriend also had planned to ask her to marry him.

Amy's trouble started as her car rolled through Guguletu, where she encountered a group of angry blacks, many of them loyal to the radical Pan Africanist Congress, or PAC.

"Amy was seen. Here comes a settler, and a settler refers to a white person," Ntobeko Peni, recalling PAC's "one settler, one bullet" chant and his role in her death, told Zahn.

"You were prepared to kill. ... There was no choice as you got more political."

The African National Congress condemned Amy's "senseless and brutal murder," calling it "racism in its crudest form."

The organization issued a statement the day after her killing: "The ANC is deeply shocked and angered that such acts should take place at a time when all should be united in their efforts to achieve peace and racial tolerance in our country. "

An opportunity to help others

A South African court sentenced Peni, Mzikhona "Easy" Nofemela, Vusumzi Ntamo and Mongezi Manqina in 1994 to 18 years in prison for their role in Amy's killing.

In 1997, the four men faced South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to confront and resolve issues related to the nation's divisive apartheid past, including cases of political violence. The next year, the commission freed the men after each apologized for the murder.

"We hope they will receive the support necessary to live productive lives in a nonviolent atmosphere," Amy's parents said in a 1998 statement backing the commission's decision to grant amnesty. "We hope the spirits of Amy and of those like her will be a force in their new lives."

Biehl background
Amy, shown here in front of a mountain in South Africa, "had a sparkling personality and ... lived life pretty fully," said her mother.

Not only did the Biehls accept the men's apologies and urge their release, but they also hired two of the killers -- Peni and Nofemela -- to continue the good deeds and spread the ideals advocated by their late daughter. (Manqina was found guilty last year of raping a disabled teenager.)

Amy's mother Linda says of Peni, a guide and HIV/AIDS educator for the Amy Biehl Foundation: "He could be in prison, he could be dead. Instead, he's a father.

"He's a part of a very positive society in South Africa, raising a 2-year-old child to participate in a multiethnic, multigender society.

"To me, that's a great joy and happiness. I've been privileged to have that opportunity."

Doing justice to Amy's legacy requires not just addressing her murderers, Linda said, but also the inequalities, emotions and difficulties that motivated her daughter to help people such as Peni.

The foundation's after-school and other youth-oriented programs seek to give South African children opportunities that their parents and grandparents could never imagine. Meanwhile, job-training and other such initiatives give adults hope and a fresh start, Linda said.

"He and many young men in his generation never got their childhood," Linda told Zahn, referring to Peni and other South Africans who grew up destitute and often hopeless.

"Amy reached out to people," she added, noting the foundation's inspiration. "Many of her friends and co-workers would say she did cross the line [between whites and blacks in South Africa]. Yes, she did, and she was a listener."

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