Robert F Kennedy
Robert F Kennedy speaking in Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town on  6 June 1966.

Phil Hall

In June 1966, US senator Robert F Kennedy accepted the invitation of several South African university student organisations to speak at their institutions on the state of apartheid. A new documentary called RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope, produced by Tami Gold and Larry Shore, explores this landmark five-day visit, which put the human rights struggle in South Africa firmly on the world’s radar.

For its time, Kennedy’s visit was highly unusual – the US government saw the South African regime as an ally in the Cold War, and there was little open criticism of apartheid by American political and civil leaders. Even Martin Luther King Jr only occasionally spoke out against the devastating racial policies in South Africa – and his comments made no dent on either side of the Atlantic.

The Kennedy visit had to accommodate the dictatorial protocol of the era. His university audiences were nearly all white, while his visit to Soweto found him inside an all-black segregated slum. Kennedy’s conversations with so-called “banned” critics of the apartheid regime – most notably Nobel Peace Prize laureate Chief Albert Luthuli, the president of the African National Congress resistance movement – were held in one-on-one meetings without media presence, because “banned” people could not be in the company of two or more people at one time.

The white South African media, largely under government control, tended to follow unofficial federal orders to ignore the visit, and Kennedy did not meet with any high-ranking government officials. But black reporters and photographers were everywhere during the visit.

Despite these obstacles Kennedy, the brother of assassinated US president John F Kennedy, made an impact. He eloquently tore away the South African government’s insistence that all anti-apartheid activists were communists, and spoke boldly about the human rights crisis created by the racist system. In a speech at the University of Cape Town, he gave one of the most memorable political statements of the 1960s: “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 and resistance.”

Gold and Shore assembled an extraordinary collection of rare newsreel footage, photographs and audio recordings from the visit, archival material that for the most had not been seen outside of South Africa, and tracked down the surviving organisers, audience members and media representatives that were present during the visit. Their work pays off brilliantly, capturing the full emotional experience of the event and its historical significance. Watch the trailer on YouTube.