(Senator Edward Kennedy in South Africa in January 1985 with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak. File photo, Reuters, Greg English)
Amid all the reminiscences about Senator Edward M. Kennedy's impact on the political life of the United States, people sometimes overlooked his very substantial influence on the key foreign issues of his time.
In few places was Kennedy's impact greater than South Africa. In one week in January 1985, he made a whirlwind tour of the country that was as controversial as it was spellbinding. I covered that visit as a correspondent for the Associated Press, based in Johannesburg at a time when the black uprising against apartheid was in full fury. Kennedy and his entourage of nine staff members descended on South Africa in a tumultuous moment when no one knew whether the movement would be crushed, or full-scale war would break out.
Much as his brother Robert did in an earlier and equally powerful visit to South Africa in 1966, Ted Kennedy stood toe-to-toe with South Africa's white leaders in repeated showdowns. And they didn't shy away from the confrontations. Kennedy also faced black protests from the small but noisy black-consciousness movement that wanted no white help in ending white domination. Those protesters forced him to call off his last, much-awaited speech in Soweto for fear of a riot.
But thousands of blacks welcomed him with whoops and ululations of approval everywhere he went, on whistle stops in big cities including Durban and Cape Town, and forgotten squatter camps and black villages slated for removal under the Group Areas Act.
In the text of the speech he would have delivered in Soweto, he was customarily direct in criticizing "the iron reign of injustice that shackles the land. Only one government on earth is now founded, in both law and life, on the unsupportable principle of racism."
See below for more details on Kennedy's South African visit.
During one stop at the Nancefield hostel in Soweto, home to 8,000 black migrant workers whose families were not allowed to live with them in "white" South Africa, Kennedy called it "one of the most distressing and despairing visits that I have made ... in my lifetime." He saw that the men living there had to decide between making a living or living with their families: "I don't know of any other place in the world where that kind of a cruel harsh choice must be made."
Outside Cape Town, he stood with his back to the gate of Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was then jailed, so that cameras had to film the prison gate -- then a crime in South Africa. The South Africans turned down his request to meet Mandela in his cell.
The taciturn Foreign Minister, R.F. "Pik" Botha, met Kennedy in Pretoria and said afterwards that they found no common ground. "He cannot even reach common ground with the Republicans in the United States, and the Republicans are to the left of us," Botha said. Botha said in a letter to Kennedy at the end of his trip: "Your motive was to use your visit as a forum to obtain publicity for a set of preconceived value judgments."
Kennedy answered Botha at one point by acknowledging there were differences between blacks and whites in the United States, "but they are disparities between Americans who have equal rights politically, not between whites who have the privilege of citizenship and blacks who are aliens in their own land."
The senator flew in a chartered jet with reporters on board, much like a US campaign trip. And his penchant for three- to five-minutes statements in settings that made for good TV clips was especially galling to the white rulers. At one stop, Kennedy argued with the administrator of a black township who told him the mortality rate for blacks was the same as for whites. "You know that's not right," Kennedy shot back at him.
It was just one of many tense moments on the trip. Kennedy staff member Bob Shrum got in a shouting match with a white South African politician in the lobby of a Durban hotel, who yelled at Shrum: "Why don't you go to the Soviet Union? Why don't you fix things up in our own country instead of coming here?" Shrum answered angrily: "You're running a slave state here," and stalked away.
Kennedy toured the most poignant symbols of apartheid. He visited a village called Mathopestad that was about to be "relocated" because it was in a white area. He sat with the villagers under a bluegum tree as the chief explained that this was their traditional land, held with legal title. Kennedy said the villagers' "only desire is to see their children grow and to enjoy this lovely community of peace."
"Now every night when that father goes to ged and when that mother says goodnight to her children, they have to wonder whether the next day there will be trucks and vans to bring them to a different land," Kennedy said. "And the only reason for that is because of the pigment of their skin. That is wrong morally. It's an inhuman policy. It's an indecent policy."
Kennedy came to South Africa at the invitation of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Allan Boesak, who was then head of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a leader as personally flawed as Kennedy. The pro-government white media portrayed Kennedy as stoking the flames of black vengeance for his own electioneering needs, to position himself for a presidential run.
Kennedy answered them, at an emotion-charged rally of about 4,000 people in a township near Cape Town, where demonstrators -- illegally -- unfurled the flag of the outlawed African National Congress: "The real question is not whether I will ever seek the presidency of the United States, but whether and when a black person will be able to seek and win the presidency of South Africa," Kennedy said.
He returned from South Africa armed with first-hand evidence to support his case for sweeping legislation that he introduced in the Senate to impose stiff economic sanctions on South Africa. Then-President Reagan vetoed the legislation, but Kennedy helped engineer the successful override of the veto in October 1986. Many in South Africa believe that the sanctions law was a critical factor in pressing the South African government, years later, to negotiate a peaceful transition to non-racial democracy in 1994.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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