Remembering RFK's Visit To 'The Land Of Apartheid'

Originally published on August 12, 2011 7:19 pm

In June of 1966, just two years before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy went to South Africa to speak out against apartheid. There, at the University of Cape Town, he gave a speech — known as the "Ripple of Hope" speech — that would be repeated over and over again and even etched onto his tombstone.

In that speech, Kennedy told a crowd of white, anti-apartheid students:

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 centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Kennedy's trip to South Africa is the subject of a new documentary, RFK In the Land of Apartheid, co-directed by South African filmmaker Larry Shore. Shore and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the late senator's eldest daughter, tell NPR's Michele Norris about the boldness of trip.

"He was invited to speak by Ian Robertson, who was head of the student association there," Townsend says of her father's University of Cape Town visit. "He wanted to go because he had seen civil rights issues here in the United States, and he had seen, and felt, the pain of discrimination so strongly here in our own country. He wanted to go to South Africa and be able to speak out against it there as well."

But Robertson wasn't the head of just any student organization — he was the head of the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students. That put him — and Kennedy's visit — at odds with the pro-apartheid government.

"South Africa didn't want to give him a visa," Townsend says. "They didn't want him to come, and the only reason they allowed him in is they were fearful he would become the next president of the United States and they didn't want to have a bad relationship with the next president. But they certainly had no interest in having him there. They didn't want to have any press about the trip; they didn't want anybody to know about the trip."

But when Kennedy arrived, he was greeted by a large crowd at the airport. It was the beginning of a five-day trip that would be remembered as a historical landmark in South Africa.

"The 1960s was the very worst decade of apartheid," Shore recalls. "This was the first time anyone really important from the outside world ... had come to South Africa, and [it] really gave people the sense of excitement and hope that maybe now people in the outside world would know what was going on in South Africa and would do something about it."

Among the things Kennedy did was meet with anti-apartheid activist Chief Luthuli — whom the South African government had banned from being quoted or photographed — and visit the then-majority black township of Soweto.

Connecting The Civil Rights And Anti-Apartheid Movements

Kennedy opened his speech at the University of Cape Town with these words:

I came here because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, then taken over by the British and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which once imported slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.

Shore says he likes to see the looks on people's faces when they hear that quote in the film.

"The [Americans], they always sit back and they say, 'Oh, he's talking about South Africa, of course.' No, he's talking about the United States," he says. "But what he did in that moment as well is he made the connections between the anti-apartheid movement and the civil rights movement in a very brilliant, very simple kind of way."

He also made that connection in a very effective way, because while Americans may not recognize Kennedy's words, many South Africans have committed them to memory.

"When I went to South Africa in 1985, people could quote that part of the speech," Townsend recalls. "It blew them away because it wasn't somebody coming from outside to say, 'You're wrong.' It's somebody coming to say, 'I share the same challenges that you have.' "

'Suppose God Is Black'

Townsend, who was 14 years old at the time, says she remembers a conversation from her father's visit in which he discussed slavery's biblical roots with a group of South African students.

"The students were saying, 'Well, you know, in the Bible, there is slavery' — sort of the same arguments that the South made before the Civil War," she recalls. "And he said, 'Well, just think about this: What if you die and you go up to heaven; and suppose when you get there you enter the pearly gates; and suppose God is black.' And that stunned the kids, because obviously, like many, they create God in their own image, and they never imagined that God could be black."

When Kennedy returned from his trip, we wrote about his visit in a Look magazine article titled "Suppose God Is Black."

"It was very important, not only for South Africa, but also for our own country," Townsend says.

The Kennedys Of South Africa

Today, Kennedy's visit is a footnote to his American legacy, but many South Africans remember it fondly. An opening scene to Shore's film has a series of South African men introducing themselves to a camera — they're all named after Robert F. Kennedy.

"We took out an ad in the Soweto newspaper looking for Kennedys," Shore says. "And we hired someone with an answering machine and within about three days we had a hundred phone calls from all over South Africa. And we brought in about 40 of these young men ... it was absolutely fascinating."

Both Shore and Townsend refer to the Kennedys of South Africa as cousins of their American counterparts.

"I always call them 'cousin,' " Townsend says. "It makes me so incredibly proud. It's really, really moving, about what one person can do if they take that responsibility to do it."

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

I'm Michele Norris. The year was 1966, just two years to the day before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles, Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to South Africa to speak out against apartheid. And there, he made a speech. It would be repeated over and over again and even etched on his tombstone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F: 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 centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

NORRIS: That's Robert F. Kennedy speaking at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966. Kennedy's trip to South Africa is the subject of a new documentary, "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," and joining me now is the film's co-director, Larry Shore, and also joining me is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's oldest daughter. She's here in the studio. Welcome to both of you.

KATHLEEN KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Thanks, Michele.

LARRY SHORE: Thanks.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: It's good to be with you.

NORRIS: Let's start at the beginning. How was it that Robert Kennedy was invited to speak in South Africa, and what did that decision to go there represent? And, Kathleen, I'm going to begin with you.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Well, he was invited to speak by Ian Robertson, who was head of the student association there. And he wanted to go because he had seen civil rights issues here in the United States, and he had seen and felt the pain of discrimination so strongly here in our own country. He wanted to go to South Africa and be able to speak out against it there as well.

NORRIS: And it wasn't an official trip.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Not only was it an official trip, South Africa didn't want to give him a visa. And the only reason they allowed him in is they were fearful that he would become the next president of the United States, and they didn't want to have a bad relationship with the next president. But they certainly had no interest in having him there. They didn't want to have any press about the trip.

NORRIS: And yet, Larry Shore, when he arrived, there was this big group that was waiting for him at the airport. This was a five-day trip. What did that trip represent in South Africa?

SHORE: You know, the 1960s was the very worst decade of apartheid. And this was really an important moment. This is the first time anyone really important from the outside world had come to South Africa, and it really gave people the sense of excitement and hope that maybe now people in the outside world would know what was going on in South Africa and would do something about it. Now, of course, those people who turned out were the English-speaking anti-apartheid white students, and, of course, later on, Robert Kennedy met with Chief Luthuli and went to Soweto. So it was a really exciting moment in a very, very bleak period.

NORRIS: From the film, it's clear that Robert Kennedy felt a strong connection to the country, and there was a speech where he did something...

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Oh, you have to just...

NORRIS: ...he was talking about...

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: ...you have the speech in front of you.

NORRIS: ...his own country. We do have the speech, and we should listen to it.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: We should listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-17th century, then taken over by the British and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: It's stunning because when I went to South Africa in 1985, people could quote that part of the speech. It blew them away because it wasn't somebody coming from outside to say: You're wrong. It's somebody coming to say: I share the same challenges that you have.

SHORE: When I watch the film with people, with audiences, I always watch their faces. And the American ones, they sit back, and they say: Oh, he's talking about South Africa, of course. No, he's talking about the United States. But what he did in that moment as well is he made the connections between the anti-apartheid movement and the civil rights movement in a very brilliant, very simple kind of way. And it's enormously effective, and it's one of our favorite parts in the film.

NORRIS: Kathleen, how old were you when your father took this trip? Do you have memories of this?

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: I have memories of him going and not only that speech but when he was arguing with the students, and the students were saying: Well, you know, in the Bible, there is slavery. And my father said: Well, just think about this. He was trying to see how he could reach out to the kids. And he said: Well, just think about this: What if you die and you go up to heaven, and suppose when you get there you enter the pearly gates, and suppose God is black? And that stunned the kids, because obviously, like many, they create God in their own image, and they had never imagined that a god could be black. And when my father came back from his trip to South Africa, he wrote an article saying "Suppose God is Black."

SHORE: That's right. In Look magazine, it was a wonderful article, a very important article.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: It was very important for not only South Africa but really for our own country.

NORRIS: Why don't we know much more about this trip? This is sort of a footnote to his legacy.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Well, maybe a footnote in the United States, but if you were in South Africa or at least were there 20 years ago, it was the biggest thing that happened in the '60s. It was huge. I mean, obviously, Nelson Mandela had been in prison. So he saw this as a major fight. And he had grown up, you know, in the '50s, of course, the major fight was supposed to be communism, but he has seen that there was more important issues than communism.

NORRIS: And there's this moment in the film where, I guess, you see the legacy of this visit. There's a scene at the beginning where a number of men introduce themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RFK IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID")

KENNEDY KASROKALO: My name is Kennedy Kasrokalo(ph).

KENNEDY ARANIM SENEGAL: My full name is Kennedy Aranim Senegal(ph).

ROBERT KENNEDY MAKALIMA: My name is Robert Kennedy Makalima(ph).

KENNEDY OFELKINOKIBINAKAN: My name is Kennedy Ofelkinokibinakan(ph).

KENNEDY LATA: My name is Kennedy. My surname is Lata(ph). You know you are given a name in honor of an individual who came to oppose the injustices that our people were experiencing at that time.

SHORE: We took out an ad in the Soweto newspaper looking for Kennedys. These are Kathleen's distant cousins.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHORE: And we hired someone with an answering machine, and within about three days, we had 100 phone calls from all over South Africa. And we brought in 40 of these young men. They were all about 37, 38 years old. It was absolutely fascinating.

NORRIS: Kathleen, how does make you feel to know that there - that you have so many cousins?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Every time I run into somebody named Kennedy, I always call them cousin, and I hope that they're happy with that. You know, it makes me so incredibly proud. It's really, really moving, about what one person can do if they take that responsibility to do it.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Larry Shore, thank you so much to both of you.

KENNEDY TOWNSEND: Thank you, Michele.

SHORE: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

NORRIS: Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, and Larry Shore co-directed a new documentary about Robert Kennedy's trip to South Africa in 1966. It's called "RFK in the Land of Apartheid," and it will air on PBS stations later this month. Also, you can look at photos from the trip and read Kennedy's essay "Suppose God is Black" from Look magazine. You can find it at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.