In 1966, Robert F Kennedy came to South Africa, a country that reflected the divisions, inequities and injustice of his own United States, but, on an even greater scale, a country where the vast majority of the population was denied their basic human rights and where the scourge of racism was institutionalised.
Kennedy spoke to the people of South Africa — in the streets of Soweto, in university halls in Cape Town and Durban, in churches, in community halls — and he came away with a clearer understanding of South Africa’s greatest asset — the resilience and will of the people.
Despite seeing at firsthand the grinding reality of the apartheid regime, Kennedy realised that hope remained strong within South Africans and that positive change was possible.
In 2011, perhaps more than at any time in the past 45 years, we are living in revolutionary times. From the chants for justice in Tahrir Square to the electronic networking of activists around the world, we are witnessing history as young people stand up for their civil rights, freedom and democracy, and demand accountability from their governments. These citizens are shaping the future of their countries with their moral courage to rise up against impunity, corruption, oppression and inequality.
Kennedy’s speech at the University of Cape Town on June 6 1966 also celebrated the role of individual citizens. Today his words remain powerful and relevant: “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 centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Kennedy was a candidate for US president when he was assassinated in 1968 — a painful blow to Americans and a terrible echo of the assassination of his older brother, President John F Kennedy, five years earlier.
Kennedy came to South Africa at a time when few international political leaders were willing to criticise the ruling regime. He repeated the same message in South Africa that he stressed to the people of the US — justice, equality, reconciliation — although here he called for even more. In Cape Town he was asked about the US’s anti-communist stance, which then defined US foreign policy and influenced policy towards South Africa.
Watching the video recording of that interview you can see that he was taken aback, almost surprised, by the question, but then he answered with a call that the US should not just be against things but must stand for something. He called for the US to live up to our ideals as a nation and to represent what people across the world believed about the country. He took a bold stand against apartheid based on those ideals.
In 2011, as popular revolution again sweeps the world and people in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere cry out for human rights and an end to political oppression, we must again heed this call. The US must again define itself based on what it stands for rather than what it stands against.
President Barack Obama, in his recent speech on the Middle East and the “Arab spring”, said: “It will not be easy. There is no straight line to progress and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable and more just.”
The US and other influential democracies, like South Africa, must again serve as a force for peaceful change, freedom and human rights, and not define ourselves solely by the status quo. We must stand with the people of the world as they seek freedom and a better life for their children.
Bobby Kennedy was asked in an interview in May 1962: “What do you see as the big problem ahead: crime or internal security?” He replied: “Civil rights.” In 2011, the same answer applies. Each one of us — whether we live in South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Israel, Libya or the US – must accept that challenge. As individuals, we have the opportunity and power to change the trajectory of our own existence, create ripples of hope and work in unison to change our communities, countries and the world for the better.
Kennedy’s words, which inspired a generation of Americans, resonate even more strongly today. He once said: “All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.”
He called individuals to action and he warned against complacency. We must all remember his legacy and his words: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events and, in the total, all those acts, will be written the history of this generation.”
Donald Gips is the US ambassador to South Africa