Senator Kennedy’s visit to South Africa in June 1966 remains the most important visit an American made to South Africa because it took place during the worst years of Apartheid. The architect of Apartheid, Dr. Verwoerd, was Prime Minister, while Nelson Mandela, Chief Albert Luthuli and other opposition leaders were in prison on Robben Island or in exile. With rare exception, all opposition across the spectrum of black and white South Africa- political parties, the universities, the churches, the arts and the media- were living under the tight control of the National Party and its military, bureaucratic and ideological machinery.
Surprisingly, very few Americans know of this dramatic visit by Robert Kennedy, then the Junior Senator from New York, to South Africa from June 4th to the 9th, 1966. He was invited by NUSAS, the anti-Apartheid National Union of South African Students, to deliver its Annual Day of Affirmation Speech to be held that year at the University of Cape Town. He was accompanied by his wife Ethel and a small number of close aides.
The importance of the visit needs to be understood within the context of America's special relationship with South Africa. For many Americans the pictures and news reports coming out of South Africa in the 1960's seemed hauntingly similar to the pictures emanating from the American South during the Civil Rights Movement. The visit emphasized the connections between the fight against racism in the United States and South Africa.
In the late fifties and early sixties, South Africa did not register on the agenda of American foreign policy. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times in 1994, at the time of South Africa's historic first democratic election, Anthony Lewis wrote of Senator Kennedy's visit: "In a trip to South Africa in 1966 he challenged the tyranny and fear that then had the country in its grip. At a time when few diplomats visited black townships or entertained black leaders, Senator Kennedy identified with the black majority and with all the victims of repression... he gave many South Africans, black and white, courage to fight injustice- and reason to believe that some in the outside world would care."1
The first American political leader who showed real interest in South Africa was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the time of Senator Kennedy's visit in 1966, Dr. King had publicly linked the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the battle against Apartheid in South Africa. (See Dr. King’s 1964 and1965 speeches on South Africa in the Speeches section.) By the early 1960's Dr. King and Chief Albert Luthuli, the banned president of the ANC, had established contacts and in 1962 they issued a Joint Statement on Apartheid. (See documents section.) Senator Kennedy made a special trip to meet with Chief Luthuli (See later.) Dr. King had been invited by NUSAS in 1965, but had been denied a visa by the South African Government.
Senator Kennedy and his party had a very busy schedule while in South Africa. They arrived just before midnight on Saturday night, June 5th at Jan Smuts Airport, outside Johannesburg, to an enthusiastic welcome by a crowd of predominantly white English speaking students. One of the legacies of Senator Kennedy's South African visit are the five memorable speeches he delivered.
The speech he gave at the University of Cape Town on June 6th, 1966, is by far the best known of Senator Kennedy's South African speeches. This speech is generally considered by most historians and biographers of Robert Kennedy to be the greatest speech of his life. One paragraph in particular- the "Ripple of Hope" paragraph - remains one of the most quoted paragraphs in American politics.
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."2
On the way to the University of Cape Town to give his speech, Senator Kennedy made a visit to Ian Robertson the President of NUSAS. Robertson, with the support of the NUSAS leadership, was instrumental in inviting Senator Kennedy. A month before the visit, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, which, among other things, meant that he could not attend Senator Kennedy's speech at the University of Cape Town.
The speech he gave at the University of the Witwatersrand on the last night of the visit, however, although it is almost unknown- except to those in attendance that night - is perhaps the most political speech Senator Kennedy made in South Africa. By the end of his trip he and his party had learnt a lot more about South Africa and they had had an opportunity to interact with a diverse range of South Africans. He was free to speak- and to speak for those who could not - in a way that he could not in the earlier part of the visit.
The Wits speech was delivered in the evening after a dramatic visit to Soweto and meetings and appearances in various locations in downtown Johannesburg. By this time- the last night of the visit- the visit had begun to have a political impact in South Africa beyond just the white liberal universities, and Senator and Ethel Kennedy's appearances were drawing a more diverse audience of South Africans than just a few days earlier.
He gave three other important speeches in addition to a number of short impromptu speeches that went unrecorded. These other recorded speeches occurred at the Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch, at the University of Natal in Durban, and to the Johannesburg Bar Council. (These speeches can be read the Speeches section.)
The visit had an enormous impact on black South Africans at a very bleak time in the struggle for human rights in South Africa. It gave them a feeling of hope that they were not alone, and that someone important in the outside world knew and cared about what was going on in South Africa. As a black journalist wrote in the Sowetan newspaper, the Golden City Post, under a headline THE DAY WE WILL NEVER EVER FORGET: "He made us feel, more than ever, that it was still worthwhile, despite our great difficulties, for us to fight for the things that we believed in; that justice, freedom and equality for all men are things we should strive for so that our children should have a better life."3
No white people had ever received the kind of exuberant reception the Kennedys received in Soweto. Thousands of people cheered them as they traveled the unpaved roads - much of the time on the roof of their car- and visited schools, The Regina Mundi Church and a spontaneous visit to the modest Soweto home of Mrs. Zondi.
A particularly important moment in the trip- in terms of both black South Africa and anti-Apartheid circles in general- was the visit to Chief Luthuli who was banned by the Government under the "Suppression of Communism Act" and forced to live in internal exile in Groutville north of Durban. Chief Luthuli, Africa's first Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1960, and Senator Kennedy walked through the fields surrounding Chief Luthuli's house in order to talk freely beyond the ears of the South African police who were present. Chief Luthuli and Senator and Mrs. Kennedy also listened to a recording of President John F. Kennedy's June 1963 speech on Civil Rights on a record player that Senator Kennedy had carried with him on the helicopter. (This speech is available in the speeches section of the website.) In subsequent statements, and in an article in Look Magazine published shortly after the visit, Senator Kennedy described Chief Luthuli as "one of the most impressive men I have ever met."4
Senator Kennedy told Soweto residents of his meeting with Chief Luthuli that same morning- the first news that most people had heard about their leader in over five years. Under his banning order Chief Luthuli could not be quoted or photographed. Senator Kennedy understood that he, as an American Senator, could talk about Chief Luthuli in a way that would be very dangerous for a South African. The very publication, in some English language newspapers, of a photograph of them together was a major challenge to the government’s restrictions. 5
In his interpersonal contacts with black South Africans, Senator Kennedy also conveyed an attitude that was in sharp contrast to the way they were treated by most white South Africans. At every opportunity- in airports, in downtown areas and in the white suburbs, and certainly during the visits to Groutville and Soweto- he sought out average black South Africans to shake their hands and talk to them. His actions and interest indicated that they were people worth knowing and befriending and not just faceless, replaceable natives or "kaffirs."6
The visit was also very important and heartening to anti-apartheid whites. As an editorial in the liberal English newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail said "Senator Robert Kennedy's visit is the best thing that has happened to South Africa for years. It is as if a window has been flung open and a gust of fresh air has swept into a room in which the atmosphere had become stale and foetid. Suddenly it is possible to breath again without feeling choked."7
The government and its supporters were always telling white liberals, such as lone Progressive Party MP Helen Suzman and Alan Paton, author of Cry the Beloved Country, (who both met with Senator Kennedy), that they were a tiny minority that no one listened to.8 The visit challenged the feelings of isolation and futility of anti-apartheid white South Africans and renewed their belief that they were in accord with the majority in the world, and it was, in fact, the government and its supporters that were an anachronistic minority. John Daniel, the NUSAS Vice President, in his vote of thanks to Senator Kennedy after his Cape Town speech, spoke for many white opponents of Apartheid when he said:
" …Your talk has served as a reminder to us that the free world associates with us and our stand for liberty and non-discrimination. Your message shows clearly that the world has forever turned its back on racial discrimination, and that the South African Government's blind worship of race theories is a pathetic and tragic defiance of the realities of the Twentieth Century. You sir, have given us a hope for the future, you have renewed our determination not to relax until liberty is restored not only to our universities, but to our land."
Or in the words of Alan Paton, "...The Kennedy visit can only be described as a phenomenon. It was exhilarating to hear again that totalitarianism cannot be fought by totalitarianism, that independence of thought is not a curse, that security and self preservation are not the supreme goals of life, that to work for change is not a species of treachery... It was to feel part of the world again."9
What also made Robert Kennedy's visit to South Africa particularly significant was that although the South African Government refused to meet with him -and provided no security - he tried to not just berate Afrikaners as a bunch of incorrigible racists, but to engage them in a dialogue. While in the Cape he went to Stellenbosch, one of the premier Afrikaans universities, where he had an interesting interchange with students. He was invited to speak by the student's of the Simonsberg Men's Residence. This invitation was strongly criticized by the pro-government university administration but the meeting was allowed to proceed.10
His approach to talking to Afrikaners, and South Africans in general, was the discourse of America's own difficult history and struggle for racial justice. He spoke of discrimination in Boston against his Irish-American grandfather and father. Throughout the visit he spoke quite openly of America's own difficult history- its racist past and ongoing racial problems. But in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s- and the legislative victories in Congress it had helped bring about by the mid-Sixties- he communicated the feeling that America in the 1960's was finally doing something about its racial problems and that South Africa could, and should, do the same.
With hindsight, many of his comments about what could happen in a post-Apartheid South Africa, and the leadership role it could play in African political and economic development, are quite foretelling in terms of the revolution that occurred in South Africa between 1990 and 1994- the negotiated end of apartheid, the writing of a new constitution and the first democratically elected government in 1994, led by President Nelson Mandela; and what has transpired in post-apartheid South Africa.
What is evident in Senator Kennedy's speeches, the question and answer sessions he held at three of the universities, and accounts of his informal discussions, was the manner in which he subtly challenged and undermined some of the pillars of apartheid ideology and mythology.
First was the image of the 'primitive and violent African' which the South African Government used to try to reinforce the notion that blacks were inferior to whites and not ready for freedom and democracy. He reminded his audience that the greatest savagery in the 20th century had been committed by whites like Hitler and Stalin. In response to some of his questioner's efforts to use biblical text to legitimize white supremacy- quite common in pro-Apartheid Dutch Reform churches in South Africa -he asked "Suppose God is Black ?"11
He also challenged the government's ongoing efforts to wrap itself in the cloak of anti-Communism as an excuse to crush its opposition -no matter how liberal or anti-Communist - and to fend off Western criticism. "Reform is not Communism," he reminded them, and the means to fight Communism were not repression and blacklisting but the promotion of democracy and equal economic opportunity.
On a number of occasions Senator Kennedy spoke of the common histories that bind South Africa and the United States. These similar experiences were well captured in the opening paragraph of his Cape Town speech:
"I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America."
He also reminded his South African audiences that the United States and South Africa had been allies in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. He knew, of course, that the South African military that had fought on the side of the Allies in World War II against Fascism was quite different to the South African military now defending Apartheid, but by recalling these alliances, he underlined the point that American criticism of South Africa was not directed at the country and its people but at its policies and laws. Senator Kennedy made clear his belief that as a former "ally" with a special relationship to South Africa, the United States -one of the world's leading democracies - also had special responsibilities vis-à-vis South Africa.
On his return to the United States, Senator Kennedy tried to shine more of a spotlight on South Africa. He spoke about his visit in public forums and in the Congress. In August 1966, soon after the visit, he published an article on his visit in LOOK Magazine. In it he was able to say some of the things he might not have been able to say while in South Africa. It was also the first publication in the United States by a national politician- in a mainstream and widely distributed magazine- on the realities of Apartheid South Africa. Soon after his return, Senator Kennedy wrote to the CEO's of 50 major American corporations with operations in South Africa, seeking their ideas on how they could use their influence to challenge Apartheid in the workplace. This initiative had many of the elements of what later became known as the "Sullivan Principles."12
It is also worth noting, as a harbinger of contentious American policy debates in the 1980's about what to do about South Africa, that Senator Kennedy never called for economic sanctions against South Africa but in private conversations he hinted that later circumstances might require a different approach.
Senator Kennedy's visit to South Africa, together with Dr. King's activities on South Africa, were noted internationally and they had an influence on the growing United Nations commitment to confront Apartheid.
Like many other questions cut short by Senator Kennedy's assassination in California on June 6th, 1968, two years after the South African visit, we can only speculate on what US policy towards South Africa might have been if he had been elected President in 1968. But it is highly likely that South Africa would have moved higher up on the American agenda much sooner than it did. Indeed the mantle of change in South Africa was picked up Robert Kennedy’s brother, Senator Edward Kennedy. He led the long battle for sanctions against South Africa in the United States Senate and gave support to a number of anti-Apartheid efforts in the Unites States. He made his own visit to South Africa in 1985.
The end of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela's historic 1994 election victory, and the second decade of post-Apartheid South Africa, have made it possible to reflect on America's contribution to these changes, both positive and negative, in a way that was not possible before. Robert Kennedy's visit to South Africa is an interesting doorway to these difficult but important times.
Within the context of the United States' activities in Africa in the 1960's, historians will probably judge Robert Kennedy's South African trip as one of America's better moments in Africa.
Together with the activities of various other American individuals and organizations working to mobilize American opinion about the situation in South Africa in the Sixties, Senator Kennedy's visit helped to plant seeds -for what was to take another two and a half long decades to bare fruit.
This story is worth telling not just to record a small but significant moment in a larger history, but because the visit touches on important questions with which the United States still grapples- how to promote human rights and democracy in an undemocratic world while engaging in an honest discourse on America's own historical problems and successes.
Footnotes1. Anthony Lewis, New York Times, May 6th, 1994.