SEARCH FOR MEANING IN SLAY

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, April 24, 1994

CAPE TOWN—The trial is in its sixth tedious month, but residents of the area anxious whites call the Ring of Fire still come into town to cheer the young comrades accused of murdering Amy Biehl.

From the courtroom balcony, they mouth encouraging words to the alleged killers and mock witnesses who testify about the young American who came to South Africa to help blacks learn about democracy.

“We come because they didn’t do it,” a man in the cheering section snaps at day’s end, before heading back to Guguletu, one of the ring of squalid black townships on the fringes of this otherwise beautiful city.

It might be true. It might be that the man speaking should be on trial, because many here believe that members of the frenzied mob that stoned and stabbed 26-year-old Biehl to death last August regularly attend the trial.

More than 20,000 have died in political violence in South Africa over the last decade. Biehl, a California high school valedictorian, Stanford honors graduate, Fulbright scholar and marathon runner who was to fly to New York in two days to pursue her Ph.D at Rutgers University, was the only American.

The judge will decide soon if police coerced confessions out of the accused, all “comrades” of the Pan Africanist Student Organization, a black nationalist group that taunts whites with the slogan, “One settler, one bullet.”

If he decides the confessions are tainted, the case will likely end.  With the world watching, a criminal justice system that satisfies hardly anyone will have failed again to find justice or truth.

The murder—Biehl was killed for her skin color, not politics—still haunts the circle of idealistic young blacks and whites in which she moved and has become an emblem of the bitter passions that stir the nation’s soul and will remain long after it votes for democracy this week.

Leaders of the student group’s parent wing condemned the crime, but their slogan is “Africa for Africans”—a liberation drumbeat that sometimes rationalizes murder thumps loudest in miserably poor places like Guguletu.

“I know Amy’s death is a symbol of everything tragic about South Africa,” said Anna Wang, one of Biehls’s voter-education co-workers.

“But because she was my friend, I have difficulty leaving it at that. I can’t imagine people, no matter how oppressed, doing what they did to Amy.”

Biehl was giving three black friends a ride home when she drove her car into Guguletu as a meeting of the student organization was ending. The township, as people say here, was “hot”; several cars had been stoned, but Biehl driven there many times before.

“Any was an incredibly unique person,” said another of her co-workers, Leticia Martinez. “When people first saw her, with her long hair and gorgeous body, they’d think, wow, beautiful California blonde.

“But there was a lot more to Amy. She was brilliant, and sweet and trusting. It frustrated me she took things for granted, like going anywhere she pleased, but that was Amy. She had faith in human nature.”

One of the first stones broke windshield and showered Amy with glass.  Dazed, she tried to keep driving forward, but the way suddenly became blocked by a truck. She and the others then left the car.

“I asked a bystander what I should do,” one of her friends later testified. “He said it was not me the crowd wanted, but the settler.”

A crowd of comrades surrounded Amy and began kicking her. Someone came up and ripped her watch away, then her rings and her earrings. She began to run, but fell under a rain of stones.

“Settler, settler,” the attackers began chanting.

One of her passengers screamed that Biehl was “a comrade, someone who is trying to help us.” But the passengers were told to run, or die; they ran, for help that came too late.

Amy tried to run again, but someone began stabbing her in the arms, the back and face. “One of the passengers had looked back and she told me that as this was happening Amy had a look of disbelief on her face,” Martinez said.

Coated in blood, Amy sank to her knees and the mob backed away. After a bit, the athlete in her—she had recently run in the Comrades Marathon—brought her back to her feet. She ran toward a nearby gas station and collapsed again. She died 30 minutes later, in the back of a police van.

“Two days later, I packed up her things for her parents in California,” Wang said. “I found a picture of her crossing the finish line in the marathon. She had this big smile.”

Wang flew with Amy’s possessions to California. “Amy was cremated, but I went to see her body beforehand. I thought I had to, as a representative of her friends.  Afterward, I came out and drove on the wrong side of the road, the American side; it’s the only time I’ve ever done that here.”

The police arrested seven suspects. Charges against three were dropped when a witness refused to testify. A fourth defendant vanished before trial.

Last week, the three baby-faced comrades now on trial entered the dark maple courtroom from a basement holding cell. One, Vusumzi Ntamo, 21, wore a yellow shirt emblazoned the words, “Stomped by Bruises.”

From the balcony, his mother, who wore a red beret and later denied to a reporter that she was his mother, threw him a sweater and laughed at some private pantomine from him.

Prosecution and defense lawyers dressed in black robes and frilly white ties spent the day questioning a witness, Ntamo’s aunt, who also wore a red beret. Over and over, they pressed for details and contradictions in her eyewitness account of her nephew’s arrest.

“I assumed the men who came to the house were police because only the law enters people’s that way,” she testified, edgily.

If the judge decides the defendants’ confessions were proper, the trial might last months more. The defense attorney, Justice Poswa, plans to mount a political defense, meaning his clients are victims too—provoked to rage by lifetimes of oppression.

Most of Amy’s friends accept that. “We’ve all been looking for meaning in Amy’s death,” Martinez said. “Her parents have helped show the way.

“The civil rights struggle had to go through a few murders and acts of courage before it was won. It’s unfortunate, terrible, but maybe this was a baby step toward winning the struggle here.”