Robben Island prisoners working the lime and stone quarries in 1966 may not have realised that the plane which flew down low over them as they chipped stones was carrying Robert F Kennedy (RFK). Kennedy was departing Cape Town in 1966 at the height of apartheid, having delivered his Day of Affirmation address at UCT.
“Robert Kennedy had instructed the pilot to fly down low over Robben Island and tilt the wings of the plane,” his daughter, Kerry Kennedy, told Independent Media yesterday. The gesture was symbolic – a show of solidarity with the political prisoners – and one that angered the apartheid regime.
“The pilot was never allowed to fly again,” Kerry said.
She is leading a large family pilgrimage to South Africa this week to commemorate 50 years since her father’s historic visit in 1966. Kerry is joined by her three daughters, 23 nieces and nephews, as well as seven members of the US Congress. Congressman John Lewis, the famous Freedom Rider, and Chris Coons, who worked to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act, are among the Congressmen who are retracing the footsteps of RFK in South Africa.
It was only some time after Kennedy’s plane flew over Robben Island that the political prisoners got to know that not only had RFK made a key address to students at UCT, but that he had flown in a helicopter to meet Chief Albert Luthuli at his home in Natal.
The significance of such a visit by a key white American politician at the height of apartheid was not lost on the liberation movements.
Kerry, a renowned human rights activist in the US, relayed how RFK proved himself to be a trailblazer in the civil rights movement in the US, and his visit to South Africa helped to inform his work in this area on his return home.
“In our basement, where we spent most of our time, I remember there was a huge standing picture of my father with Albert Luthuli,” Kerry recalled.
Kerry noted how many Americans in 1966 had never heard of apartheid, and there had been a great deal of scepticism about the anti-colonial struggle in the US Congress.
“Many Congressmen at the time looked to Europe, and they didn’t want to offend the colonial powers. But President John F Kennedy had travelled to Africa and aligned himself with the local nationalist leaders, and became the first American senator to stand with Algerians in the struggles against France,” Kerry said.
Kerry made a point of remarking how much the world had changed since she was a young human rights activist in 1981. “At that time all Latin American governments were under right-wing dictatorships, and not one of them are left standing today."
Kerry hopes her family will learn from the history of South Africa, most particularly at an emotional level.
South Africans, no doubt, will also have a lot to learn from her.