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With Bobby in Darkest Africa
Grinning and gesticulating, alternating wry wit and high-flown idealism, the junior Senator from New York stumped the Republic of South Africa last week as if he were the last surviving custodian of the white man's burden. At one stop, an enthusiastic crowd knocked him off the roof of a car, but Robert F. Kennedy hardly missed a comma. “I believe there will be progress,” he exhorted the residents of Soweto, a black ghetto near Johannesburg. “Hate and bigotry will end in South Africa one day. I believe your children will have a better opportunity, than you did.” Unaccustomed to such solicitude, from a white politician, the Sowetoans devoured Bobby's every word and seemed ready to consume the speaker as well. “They are so excited to see you,” a schoolteacher explained, “they want to take a piece of you.”
Banned Host. What was Kennedy's reason for politicking in Africa? He has always been interested in that continent, he insisted, and wants to learn more about it. Or was it just part of the Senator's supercharged, global headline safari (TIME, May 20)? “Must I stop traveling,” he demanded, “because someone will say I'm after publicity?”
Whatever his motive, the results were positive both for his own reputation and for the morale of South Africa's voiceless millions. The white-supremacist regime of Hendrik Verwoerd had done what it could to limit Kennedy's impact. It imposed a five-year “ban” – social and political excommunication without stated cause or trial-on Ian Robertson, 21, head of the National Union of South African Students, who had first invited Kennedy to that country. It also barred foreign newsmen who wanted to accompany Kennedy on his four day tour. The only government representatives he saw were policemen.
Wrong Sex. Spurred on by the regime's efforts to downplay his visit, resident correspondents combined with the Senator's own staff to assure full coverage of his every move. Large crowds seemed equally intrigued by the visitor.Students carried him on their shoulders. At Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg, an Indian youth gave him an enthusiastic kiss (“Wrong sex,” said Kennedy), and two coeds unfurled a banner proclaiming WE LOVE YOU BOBBY.
For his part, Kennedy shook every hand in sight– white, black and brown (and on one occasion scared the daylights out of a black who thought the big bwana was going to hit him). In Durban, Kennedy stood atop a car and sang We Shall Overcome with his audience. In Groutville, he visited Albert Luthuli, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the proscribed African National Congress. At Cape Town University, standing next to the symbolic empty chair that Ian Robertson could not occupy, Kennedy told his racially mixed audience: “We must recognize the full human equality of all our people– before God, before the law and in the councils of government, for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”
Reinforcements Next Time. One of Kennedy's few outspoken critics was Blaar Coetzee, Deputy Minister of Bantu [Negro] Administration, who called the Senator a “little snip,” and vowed that South Africa would not be intimidated by the U.S. or Great Britain. The pro-government Afrikaans press was also antagonistic, but the English-language papers were enthusiastic.“Kennedy's visit,” gushed the opposition Rand Daily Mail, “was the best thing that has happened to South Africa for years.” Kennedy even got on well with the leaders of. the South African Foundation, a business sponsored promotional organization. After a private meeting, foundation officials invited Kennedy to return next year. He said he would love to and might bring along some of his nine children. Then, after a warm reception in Tanzania, the Senator, more tousled than ever, headed for Kenya and Ethiopia.