Robert Kennedy was transformed by historic SA visit

JOHANNESBURG, May 31 (ANA) – United States Senator Robert Kennedy’s strong support for civil rights in the US was partly inspired by what he experienced on his historic visit to apartheid South Africa 50 years ago this month, his daughter Kerry Kennedy, a human rights activist, said in Johannesburg on Monday.

She is visiting South Africa with her three daughters and 24 other relatives, several US Congressman and woman and representatives of the RF Kennedy Human Rights group which she heads to celebrate the anniversary of his visit.

Robert Kennedy, younger brother of US President John Kennedy, visited South Africa as a guest of the liberal National Union of South African Students in 1966 and spoke out against apartheid, in several keynote speeches, including his famous “Ripples of Hope” speech at UCT in Cape Town.

He also visited ANC leader Albert Luthuli at Groutville, north of Durban, where he was under house arrest.

Kennedy, then a US Senator, had been Attorney-General from 1961 to 1963 in the administration of his brother who was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963. Robert Kennedy himself was to be assassinated in California two years after his visit to South Africa, while campaigning to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.

Speaking at a discussion about Robert Kennedy’s visit at Wits University on Monday, US ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard said Robert Kennedy had undergone a personal transformation as a politician, akin to that of St Paul.

In 1956 Kennedy had been a “political pugilist”, a “bare-knuckle tactician”, Gaspard said. By the time he ran for president in 1968 he had become more humanist and empathetic.

Kerry Kennedy stressed that her father, as a college student, had stood up against the Catholic Church which was very hard to do.
As a law student he had invited the first African American Nobel peace prize winner Ralph Bunche to speak at the University of Virginia and to stay in his house as there had been nowhere else he could stay in the town.

But she also acknowledged that when her father became Attorney-General, he had said: “I wasn’t losing sleep over the plight of African-Americans in my job.

“By the time he left, he definitely was losing sleep over it. More than any other Attorney-General in the history of our country he sought justice for civil rights activists.”

So he did learn a lot, she said, including from his experiences in South Africa.

Former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe recalled that Robert Kennedy had urged white students to avoid four dangers – futility, expediency, timidity and comfort.

That message still resonated in South Africa today. “We have to overcome the danger of expediency, that for our jobs we are prepared to say a swimming pool is a fire pool,” he said, to much laughter. This referred to police minister Nathi Nhleko’s claim that the swimming pool built with public funds at President Jacob Zuma’s private Nkandla residence was actually a security feature.

Gaspard said Robert Kennedy’s Ripples of Hope speech especially continued “to ring true and bring inspiration to Americans and South Africans”.

“The visit by Kerry Kennedy reminds us of the longstanding friendship we have shared, exemplifies the support of principled Americans for the anti-apartheid movement, and reminds us of the great leadership of individual citizens in both countries during a dark period of history.”

Kerry Kennedy added: “My father came to South Africa in 1966 to listen and to learn. We are here today, 50 years later, to listen and learn also.  We look forward to learning the lessons South Africa has for our country and for the rest of the world.  It’s hard to think of a country that has endured more pain and suffering than South Africa, but as a human rights activist, I have tremendous optimism about the present and the future.”

– African News Agency (ANA)

Disclaimer: This story is pulled directly from the African News Agency wire, and has not been edited by Mail & Guardian staff. The M&G does not accept responsibility for errors in any statement, quote or extract that may be contained therein.

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