S. Africa shaken by student's slaying

August 27, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It was only one death in a day that saw another dozen people fall to the cycle of violence accompanying this country's painful road to democracy.

But the murder of Amy Biehl struck a nerve rarely touched by the incessant bloodshed.

For one, the 26-year-old graduate of Stanford University, who was just finishing up her stay in South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, was white. The vast majority of deaths in political violence are black.

For another, this was not the death of an innocent bystander, but of someone who was seen as a selfless champion of the rights of her attackers, killed for no other reason than her race.

Ms. Biehl had spent her 10 months in South Africa -- she was already packed for her trip home to day -- not only researching women's rights, but also working in voters' education and other projects designed to help the black community as it prepares for the first non-racial election, scheduled for next April.

She was killed Wednesday afternoon in Guguleto, a black township near Cape Town. She had gone there to drive three black co-workers home when the windows of her car were shattered by stones.

When she tried to flee from the car, a gang of youths grabbed her, then stoned and stabbed her in the head and shoulders as she pleaded for her life. She died in the arms of Singiswa Bevu, one of the black women she was driving home, who was stabbed herself.

According to police reports, when Ms. Bevu asked why she was being attacked, the youths replied, "Because she is a settler."

Settler is the term used for whites who moved onto African land. Whites are sometimes taunted with chants of "Settler, settler, settler" when they drive through townships. "One settler, one bullet" is a slogan used by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), a left-wing group whose armed wing, the Azanian People's Liberation Army, has been implicated in several deadly attacks on white targets and killings of white farmers.

But Ms. Biehl was not a settler. She was killed because of the color of her skin by township youths out of school because of a teachers' strike and encouraged by the African National Congress (ANC) to take action in support of that strike.

The killing was condemned by groups across the South African political spectrum. The ANC, the party most likely to take power following the April elections, issued a strong statement, calling the murder "racism in its crudest form," and pledged to help track down the killers.

The police did arrest two youths, aged 17 and 18, in connection with the murder. The suspects were confirmed to be members of the Pan Africanist Students Organization (PASO), a wing of PAC.

What sent a chill through the country was the statement by PASO national chairman Tsietsi Telite at a Cape Town news conference confirming that the suspects are members of his organization.

"We are not surprised at what happened," he said of the murder. "Looking at the situation on the ground, the youths and students are so frustrated that if they see anyone associated with the dispossessing classes, anything can happen -- and can happen again."

Though condemnation also came from PASO's parent group, the PAC, and the Azanian People's Organization, a black consciousness-based group, it was Mr. Telite's remarks that caused many to wonder if South Africa can ever enjoy peace.

At the University of the Western Cape, where Ms. Biehl had worked at the Community Law Center, a multi-racial memorial service was a scene of tearful emotions. They sang a well-known South African freedom song, "Senzenina?" ("What Have We Done?").

Ms. Biehl's death was reminiscent of the recent attack on a suburban Cape Town Church in which 12 people died. Though predominantly white, St. James is a multi-racial church that does extensive mission work in a nearby black township. Several youths from that township, members of the PAC, have been arrested in connection with that attack, though no one has been charged.

While most of the s political violence is attributed to fights between followers of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, that is not the case in the Cape Town area, where Inkatha has few followers.

Disputes in the Cape region are often between the ANC and the PAC. The death quickly became a partisan issue on the political battlefield as the ANC blamed PAC supporters, while the PAC said the violence came from the ANC's call for action in support of the teachers' strike, which the PAC has opposed.

But for most, Ms. Biehl's killing resonated much deeper than partisan politician differences, leading many to wonder if it will ever be possible to narrow the fissures among South Africa's various groups, divisions that were widened and hardened during 40 years of apartheid.

The victim's black roommate, Melanie Jacobs, said that the killers had lost a sister in the struggle against apartheid.

"She fought for the rights of women," Miss Jacobs said. "She fought for the rights of black women."

But she died because she was a white woman.

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