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KENNEDY IN AFRICA:
A Sympathetic Chord
A huge black-and-white banner reading “We Love You, Bobby” fluttered over the heads of more than 1,000 white South African students bottled up inside the main hall of Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts Airport. Outside, U.S. Embassy officials hurriedly escorted the long-awaited guest across
, and into the airport building where the cheering mob of white youngsters lifted him onto their shoulders and carried him to a platform. A voice in the crowd yelled, in Afrikaans, “Go home, Kennedy,” but it was quickly silenced, first with boos, and then with a new crescendo of cheers. Thus did the junior senator from New York begin his safari through the land of apartheid.
To South African Government leaders, Robert F. Kennedy was about as welcome as Martin Luther King. But having reluctantly decided they could not refuse him a visa, they had done the next best thing-they officially ignored his presence, refused visas to foreign newsmen who wished to cover his visit and silenced his host, National Union of South African Students’ president Ian Robertson, by banning him from public gatherings under their catch-all Suppression of Communism Act.
Their efforts to minimize the impact of the Kennedy presence certainly had little effect. Off to a brisk start in suburban Pretoria, the senator sauntered up to startled Africans, most of them servants taking a break from their household duties, and pumped their hands, saying with a grin: “I’m Robert Kennedy from the United States, and this is my wife, Ethel.” He also met with South African editors, one of whom meaningfully handed him “The Principles of Apartheid” to help Kennedy “understand South Africa better.” Just as quickly Bobby offered the editor “The American Negro Reference Book.”
Cheering Students: The following day, at Cape Town airport, where hundreds of cheering students turned out to greet him, a young black African yelled out: “Fourteen million non-whites are waiting to hear your magic voice tonight, Bobby. Make it good and loud.”
He did. For that evening, at the University of Cape Town, an audience of 18,000 spilled out from the main hall onto the university grounds to hear Robert Kennedy at his most eloquent. “There is discrimination in New York,” he told them, “apartheid in South Africa and serfdom in the mountains of Peru. People starve in the streets in India; intellectuals go to jail in Russia; thousands are slaughtered in Indonesia; wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils. But they are the common works of man.” Then, in ringing tones, Bobby called on the students, to share a common determination to wipe away such unnecessary sufferings. “Moral courage,” he concluded, “is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle . . . yet is it the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” His audience responded with a five-minute ovation.
In the university town of Stellenbosch, where he spoke to Afrikaans-speaking students who had opposed his visit to South Africa, and in Durban, and back again in Johannesburg, his fervor, idealism and his challenge to youth were received with prolonged applause wherever he went. At Witwatersrand University, he made a passionate plea for racial equality, and at the same time he warned his hosts that “Where men can be deprived because their skin is black, in the fullness of time others will be deprived because their skin is white.” Afterward, 1,200 wildly excited students, Afrikaner and English-speaking, carried him off on their shoulders.
But if the young white students of South Africa had so obviously lost there hearts to Bobby Kennedy, he in turn had fallen under the spell of an older man. On the morning of his fourth and final day in the Republic, he flew by helicopter to a lonely farm, 30 miles outside Durban, where Zulu Chief Albert Luthuli, the 67-year-old African leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been restricted for the past seven years under the Suppression of Communist Act. The two strolled for 70 minutes through the lanes near Luthuli’s tin-roofed home, and Kennedy later described the erect, white-haired chief as “one of the most impressive men I have met.”
Black Ghetto: Word of the meeting traveled fast. A few hours later, thousands of cheering black Africans poured into the streets of Johannesburg’s African township of Soweto to greet the man who had shaken the hand of their leader. As his car drove slowly through the black ghetto, Bobby Kennedy stood on the roof, waving to the crowds like a political candidate. The black people of Soweto had never seen anything like it. And so it went-thousands of school children singing songs to him outside a Roman Catholic school; a crowd of black, white and brown nearly forced him off his car in central Johannesburg in their efforts to shake his hands. And then, the following morning, he flew off to an equally tumultuous reception in the black-ruled nations of Kenya and Tanzania to the north.
Behind him, he left both cheers and jeers. To the antigovernment, Rand Daily Mail, the U.S. senator’s visit had been “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 in.” The pro-government Die Burger, however, complained that the visit had degenerated into an “election campaign . . . with high-sounding slogans aimed at the yearning for justice and brotherhood . . .[a] somewhat ominous spectacle.”
Certainly, there was no doubt that Robert Kennedy was fully aware that his doings in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg would not go unnoticed in Harlem, Watts and Chicago’s Southside. But as England’s liberal newspaper The Guardian noted, “. . . occasionally in politics it is given to a man to say the right thing, at the right time and in the right place, and so strike a chord that is both sympathetic and lasting.”
Newsweek, June 20, 1966