“On the side of the angels”: Helen Suzman and the 1966 Robert Kennedy tour
1966 was a bleak year in South African politics. The National Party Government celebrated the fifth anniversary of the white republic and won its biggest ever majority in the all-white elections in March. The ANC, the SACP, the PAC and their allies were all banned and their leadership was either in exile or in jail. In the Eastern Cape, Verwoerd's theories of grand apartheid were being test-driven in the nominally autonomous Transkei Bantustan.
North of the Limpopo, Ian Smith had recently proclaimed UDI for 'Rhodesia' and growled defiance at the world. The Salazar dictatorship in Portugal was still reasonably strong and still ruling Angola and Mozambique. There was apparent substance in the rhetoric of a great white 'anti-communist' redoubt in Southern Africa anchored by a powerful white South Africa.
The lone voice of reason in the all-white South African Parliament ('Coloureds' were still represented by one or two white MPs, members of the compromised United Party), was Helen Suzman, in her fifth year as the only representative of the Progressive Party. The official opposition United Party was deeply compromised and indecisive.
The only other vocal criticism of the government came from the English language university campuses and was articulated by NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students. They were beginning to echo the international student protest themes of the 1960s: anti-war, anti-racial injustice and anti-capitalism; on this latter point, Suzman and the students parted ways over the years.
In 1966 NUSAS invited US Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother of the assassinated President John F. Kennedy to South Africa to deliver its annual 'Day of Affirmation' Address at the University of Cape Town. Kennedy was being seen as the new liberal standard bearer of American politics and was seeking to gain support among the African American community. His acceptance of the NUSAS invitation to visit South Africa in June 1966 can be seen as a combination of an idealistic desire to confront a racist regime at the bottom of Africa and a realistic desire to strengthen his support among black voters back home.
In South Africa, the invitation clearly provoked the National Party government and Ian Robertson, the President of NUSAS, had a banning order slapped on him a month or so before Kennedy arrived. His deputies, Margaret Marshall (who later became Chief Justice of the State of Massachusetts) and John Daniel, had to step forward and pick up the spear.
The banning of Robertson was a suitable prelude to the Kennedy visit. Thousands of students were galvanised into action by the arbitrary banning of their leader and there were rallies and marches in all the English-language university towns and cities. Suzman protested vociferously in parliament. This typically clumsy government action probably provided many more avid listeners for the message that Kennedy was to bring than would otherwise have been the case.
Robert Kennedy's visit non-plussed the government. He was a vocal liberal, but a resolute anti-communist. Pretoria tried to ignore the visit as much as possible, although the ubiquitous “Special Branch” observed closely. Kennedy was probably the first major international figure to visit South Africa since British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan had made his 'Winds of Change' in Cape Town in 1960. The impact of his visit on the government and those he chose to meet, while poles apart, was equally powerful. One of those RFK met was Helen Suzman. In her memoirs she said:
“Robert Kennedy's visit and his passionate espousal of liberal values were immensely encouraging to those under siege. He boosted the morale of all of us under attack, and for once we felt we were on the side of the angels.”
RFK also visited Robertson in the confinement of his apartment as he was on his way to the airport to fly back to the USA. He was not the only banned person Kennedy had visited. Earlier in the visit RFK flew from Durban to Stanger by helicopter to visit Chief Albert Luthuli, the banned leader of the ANC, at his home in Groutville.
Fifty years later in a globally inter-connected world with a dozen international news channels and immediate access to online news services, it is difficult to imagine and remember the enormous sense of isolation in apartheid South Africa. There was no television and the main source of news was the relentless barrage of propaganda from the Broederbond-controlled SABC radio services. Who, over fifty, can forget the daily early morning irritation of the “Current Affairs” radio propaganda slot?
The Afrikaans press was staunchly pro-Government and criticism in English-language newspapers was often muted, apart from the gallant Rand Daily Mail and the quirky Natal Witness. Mass use of air travel had not yet come into vogue and the main way to get to Britain and Europe took ten days by sea on a Union Castle liner so there was limited cross-fertilisation of ideas.
Suzman spent a full day with Robert Kennedy in Cape Town and marvelled at his stamina. Robert began visiting factories and talking to workers at dawn; taking morning coffee with a women's group; giving a lunchtime talk to businessmen; visiting one the Cape black townships in the afternoon and delivering the NUSAS Day of Affirmation Address, his famous “Ripple of Hope” address to a packed hall at the University of Cape Town, in the evening.
Suzman's admiration for RFK was fully reciprocated. On his return to the USA he wrote to her, saying:
“You are an inspiration to all of us. Those of us who live in a different atmosphere under different circumstances and yet are struggling with the same kinds of problems may become weary and discouraged at times. But we shall always find the stimulation to continue knowing that Helen Suzman never gave up.”
After the Day of Affirmation speech in Cape Town the Kennedys returned to Johannesburg and RFK gave an equally inspiring address to students at the University of the Witwatersrand. Robert and Ethel then partied the night away at the home of Helen Suzman's cousins, Clive and Irene Menell. The gathering included the cast of Alan Paton's work 'Sponono' which was being performed on the Wits campus, the NUSAS leadership and many excited students also joined the fun.
The Kennedy visit raised the profile of apartheid as an international problem at a time when opposition to it was otherwise muted. It also helped Helen Suzman develop a crucial international network that lasted during the long years of struggle that lay ahead.
Before the end of 1966, Albert Luthuli had died under suspicious circumstances and Hendrik Verwoerd had been assassinated on the floor of the House of Assembly. Two years later, Robert Kennedy himself was assassinated in California in his moment of triumph, having won the Democratic presidential primary election in that state.
The words of his Day of Affirmation speech in South Africa, on 6 June 1966, are engraved upon his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery:
“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”.
Graham Dominy is a Research Fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation.
This article first appeared as an HSF Brief.