In January 1985, Senator Edward M. Kennedy traveled to South Africa at the invitation of Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and the South African Council of Churches. The trip was a prelude to Kennedy’s leadership of the effort to pass legislation imposing economic sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa.
Prior to his trip, Kennedy had been a strong supporter of the anti-apartheid cause, but his activity was mostly behind the scenes. In 1984, however, he increased the level and visibility of his anti-apartheid activity. He was disappointed that apartheid had not been made an issue in the 1984 presidential election, that there had been no mention or criticism of President Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement.” He was also concerned that, because of successful trips that the president of South Africa had made during 1983 and 1984 to European capitals, the apartheid government was gaining more acceptance in the West. And so, in 1984, Kennedy made a series of anti-apartheid statements on the floor of the Senate, gave a major speech about the evils of apartheid to the UN General Assembly, organized a forum in the Senate, and met with South African journalists and activists visiting the United States.
Kennedy was the first member of the Senate, in the face of warnings from the State Department, to receive and meet with Oliver Tambo, the president of the African National Congress. In earlier years, Tambo had been Nelson Mandela’s law partner in Johannesburg. Meeting with Tambo was thought to be risky business politically because the Reagan administration had identified the ANC to be a terrorist group and warned members of Congress not to meet with ANC members. But Tambo — quiet, strong, well-spoken and lawyerly — was universally liked and respected. He was the leader of the oldest political party in Africa, and Kennedy thought it essential that there be a clear and trustworthy channel of communication with him. He took the risk.
Before he arrived in South Africa in January 1985, Kennedy asked the South African government for permission to meet with Mandela during his trip. At the time, Mandela was being held at the Pollsmore Prison in Capetown. Kennedy got no response until his third day in South Africa during his meeting with the South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha. Although the conversation was civil, the meeting was contentious. The foreign minister lectured Kennedy about how the American civil rights movement could not be replicated in South Africa because, he said, blacks in South Africa were “much less developed” than blacks in the United States. At the end of the meeting, Botha asked to talk to Kennedy privately.
The foreign minister told Kennedy that the South African government had been considering his request to visit Mandela at the very highest levels, and that the government had decided to grant his request and would allow the Kennedy party — which included many members of the Kennedy family — to meet with Mandela. “There is one condition, however,” said the Foreign Minister. “Given your family’s experience with violence and the great example of Dr. Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence in the civil rights movement, it should not be difficult for you to meet this condition. We would like you — in public — to condemn the use of violence in the anti-apartheid movement.”
The South African government knew full well that Kennedy was thoroughly committed to non-violence as a means of achieving social and political change and wanted to use that commitment — and Kennedy’s presence in South Africa—– to criticize the ANC. Kennedy declined to accept any conditions on his meeting with Mandela, and the meeting did not occur. Two years later, the government of South Africa made a similar proposal to Mandela himself. He was told that he would be released from jail if he would renounce the use of violence in the antiapartheid movement. Mandela declined to do that and remained in jail for three more years.
On his way back to the United States, Kennedy met with the leadership of the ANC in Lusaka. The future president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeke, told him, “We have been following your trip through South Africa very closely. We know of your efforts to see Mr. Mandela. We know what Pik Botha asked you to do. We think you made the right decision.”
Kennedy returned to the United States and introduced legislation calling for economic sanctions against South Africa. The Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, but, working with Senators Lowell Weicker and Richard Lugar, Kennedy built a coalition that ultimately prevailed over President Reagan’s veto. Building and then leading this coalition was surely one of Kennedy’s greatest legislative achievements. And it was one of Kennedy’s proudest moments when he welcomed Nelson Mandela to the JFK Library during his trip to the United States in 1990.