"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


kennedy in south africa

As most of you surely know by now, United States Senator Ted Kennedy passed away late Tuesday evening. Kennedy was one of what I fear is a dying breed of politicians: those who could hold strongly to their beliefs while still taking a pragmatic approach to crafting laws. That he garnered such respect from friends on both sides of the aisle is clear evidence of his effectiveness as a lawmaker.

The Senator was involved in all sorts of major pieces of legislation in his nearly five decades in the Senate. He was best known for his advocacy on behalf of the our country's most discriminated against and most dispossessed people, from pushing for landmark civil rights legislation to his as-yet-unrealized dream of reforming the health care system.

Kennedy was a leader in the movement to divest from and impose sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime in the 1980's. Kennedy visited South Africa in 1985 (on a trip some criticized as being "stage-managed" by the authorities in Pretoria, as most trips by foreign dignitaries were at the time). The trip, however, was an opportunity for Kennedy to make a statement, and to the extent that it could be done, he did. As Adam Clymer notes:
"He visited that country in 1985, after Archbishop Desmond Tutu persuaded him that his presence would draw attention to apartheid through the American television crews that followed him. He visited slums and resettlement areas. His trip was denounced by the South African government and by the United States ambassador, Herman Nickel. Kennedy staged an illegal protest outside Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was being held. He said, 'Behind these walls are men that are deeply committed to the cause of freedom in this land.' Years later, Mandela said he knew Kennedy had been at the gate of the prison and that 'gave us a lot of strength and hope, and the feeling that we had millions behind us both in our struggle against apartheid but in our special situation in prison.'”
The next year, Kennedy helped push through Congress at long last the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Passed partly in response to the wave of anti-apartheid student protests that swept the country at the time, this legislation (and subsequent action taken by Congress and American allies) imposed sanctions, ended most financial support, and banned direct flights to and from South Africa. President Reagan vetoed the act as it would hurt a staunch anti-Communist African state. He preferred a policy of "constructive engagement," which Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as:
"an abomination, an unmitigated disaster. ...In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian. . . . You are either for or against apartheid and not by rhetoric. You are either in favor of evil or you are in favor of good. You are either on the side of the oppressed or on the side of the oppressor. You can't be neutral."
Even many of Reagan's Congressional allies were shamed into action by Tutu's irrefutable argument. Recognizing a moral imperative to do the right thing even if it wasn't in the national interest, the members overrode Reagan's veto by huge majorities in both houses.

Whether the divestment movement and the Act were directly responsible for the end of the apartheid era in South Africa is debated. Reagan did not make the sanctions as strong as they could have been, but as support for South Africa's government became increasingly problematic for states and corporations, the country began to lose foreign investment. There is no question that the loss of so much foreign capital took the country's economy into severe decline. The recession (along with the end of the Cold War) made it clear that apartheid could not continue. By the early 1990's, negotiations to end apartheid were well underway.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela visited the United States after his release from prison in 1990. One of their stops was Boston, where they had lunch with Senator Kennedy and members of his family. Their visit to Boston was not a mistake; it was an opportunity to thank one of their strongest supporters in the long struggle for freedom.

Like all of us, Kennedy had his faults. But he was a consistent champion for those in his own society and throughout global community who lacked freedom, equal rights, and basic human dignity, time and time again. And for that, he will be missed.