BOSTON — Many Africans will mourn the passing of Ted Kennedy, remembering his fiery opposition to apartheid which was instrumental in getting public opinion and then the U.S. government to support the release of Nelson Mandela and majority rule in South Africa.

Kennedy helped to make opposition to apartheid one of the great moral crusades of our time, not just with impassioned speeches and by spearheading sanctions but also by going to South Africa and organizing an illegal protest at the gates of Pollsmoor prison, where Nelson Mandela was jailed.

Anti-apartheid crusader Archbishop Desmond Tutu convinced Kennedy to travel to South Africa in order to bring international attention to the repression and human rights abuses of the white minority rule government of South African President P.W. Botha. At that time the Pretoria government had considerable military and police might, backed by the most sophisticated weapons. Because it claimed to be a bulwark against communism, the South
African regime also received considerable implied support from Western powers, including the United States and Britain, which refused to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.

Ted Kennedy would have none of this. He embraced the anti-apartheid struggle and gloried in stating why the system of racial segregation and oppression was wrong and should be strongly opposed by the U.S. government.

In eight days in January 1985, Kennedy swept through South Africa, visiting Johannesburg townships and squatter camps in Cape Town. He met with anti-apartheid leaders including Winnie Mandela, the wife of the jailed Nelson Mandela, who was under draconian banning orders which confined her to her home and prevented her from meeting more than one person at a time. Kennedy championed Winnie Mandela as a fighter for democracy.

Kennedy's inspired campaign against apartheid culminated when he organized an illegal protest calling for the release of Nelson Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison. Defying orders of the South African police, Kennedy strode up to the gates of the prison and urged Mandela's release and the end of apartheid.

At that time Mandela was portrayed by many, including the mainstream media, as a controversial figure who espoused terrorism and communism. Kennedy helped to promote Nelson Mandela as a great democrat and freedom fighter.

"Behind these walls are men that are deeply committed to freedom in this land," said Kennedy, captured by international reporters, photographers and television cameras.

Kennedy's savvy and inspiring crusade in South Africa brought the expected denunciation from the South African government. It even brought a condemnation from the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, Herman Nickel, who was implementing President Ronald Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime.

Kennedy's battle against apartheid continued when he returned to Washington. He introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 which imposed economic sanctions against the South African regime. In 1986 Congress overrode President Reagan's veto and enacted the law which banned  all new investments by Americans in South African businesses and the importation of key South African products such as steel, coal, ammunition and food. It was a strategic attack on apartheid.

"The time for procrastination and delay is over. Now is the time to keep the faith with Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu and all those who believe in a free South Africa," said Kennedy.

I was in Zimbabwe at this time and remember that the fortress of apartheid looked impregnable. I saw how Kennedy's activism helped to get the Western world to join the brave fighters against apartheid. The hardscrabble campaign in South Africa became a worldwide movement that forced Western governments to change their policies and put forceful pressure on the South African government to end apartheid.

Years later, Nelson Mandela — freed and president of South Africa, Nobel Peace prize winner and acclaimed around the world — paid tribute to Kennedy's 1985 visit. He said that while in Pollsmoor Prison he and other anti-apartheid fighters were aware that Kennedy was standing outside the gates. He said that "gave us a lot of strength and hope and the feeling that we had millions behind us, both in our struggle against apartheid and in our special situation in prison."

Nelson Mandela today is 92 and in failing health but he still remembers the key support he received from Ted Kennedy. "He made his voice heard in the struggle against apartheid at a time when the freedom struggle was not widely supported in the West," said the Nelson Mandela foundation director Achmat Dangor, on behalf of Mandela. "We remain grateful for his role." 

Related Stories