Robert F. Kennedy has long been identified with Massachusetts, New York, and Washington D.C. But this week, following its successful spring South African premiere and tour, a new film that explores the slain presidential candidate’s ties with South Africa, will air on PBS tonight in the United States (check local listings).
Featuring never-before-seen archival footage, and interviews in South Africa and the United States, “RFK in the Land of Apartheid: A Ripple of Hope” interweaves the present with a largely unknown yet important visit that Senator Kennedy made to South Africa in June 1966, during the darkest days of apartheid.
A particularly important moment in the trip in terms of both black South Africa and anti-apartheid circles in general was his visit with Chief Albert Luthuli, Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1960 (shown at left). Chief Luthuli, president of the African National Congress, had been banned by the government under the “Suppression of Communism Act” and forced to live in internal exile in Groutville north of Durban. The two leaders walked through the fields surrounding his house in order to talk freely beyond the ears of the South African police who were present. In subsequent statements and publications, Senator Kennedy would describe Chief Luthuli as “one of the most impressive men I have ever met.”
The film next travels with Kennedy to Soweto where, on that same morning, he met thousands of people and gave voice to Chief Luthuli’s silenced call for a free South Africa. Because, under his banning order, Chief Luthuli could not be quoted or photographed, this was the first news that most people had heard about their leader in over five years.
With an original sound track by American musician Jason Moran and voices from the University of Cape Town Africa Choir, the film’s heart is found in the hopeful reaction people have to his “Ripple of Hope” speech at the University of Cape Town, which is widely considered to be the most important speech Kennedy ever gave, and a summation of his deepest-held beliefs and convictions. One paragraph in particular, the “Ripple” paragraph, has become one of the most quoted paragraphs in American politics.
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. 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 centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Reflecting his sustaining ties with the people of South Africa, his family had this quote, followed simply with the words “South Africa, 1966” carved on his tombstone. During his first visit to the United States as President of South Africa in October 1994, Nelson Mandela acknowledged the special tie by visiting Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery to pay his country’s respect.
John F. Suggs is the film’s Outreach Director. His Email is email@example.com. Check out the film’s Facebook page for more information.