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Ted Kennedy, anti-apartheid crusader

Senator led demonstrations, legislation against apartheid before it was popular to do so

On January 9, 1985 Senator Edward Kennedy made an emotional visit to banned Winnie Mandela, the wife of Africa National Congress (ANC) leader, Nelson Mandela in Brandfort. At that time, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for more than twenty-years. Kennedy praised Winnie Mandela as courageous and concerned for her country. (Greg English/Reuters)

BOSTON — Many Africans will mourn the passing of Ted Kennedy, remembering his fiery opposition to apartheid which was instrumental in getting public opinion and then the U.S. government to support the release of Nelson Mandela and majority rule in South Africa.

Kennedy helped to make opposition to apartheid one of the great moral crusades of our time, not just with impassioned speeches and by spearheading sanctions but also by going to South Africa and organizing an illegal protest at the gates of Pollsmoor prison, where Nelson Mandela was jailed.

Anti-apartheid crusader Archbishop Desmond Tutu convinced Kennedy to travel to South Africa in order to bring international attention to the repression and human rights abuses of the white minority rule government of South African President P.W. Botha. At that time the Pretoria government had considerable military and police might, backed by the most sophisticated weapons. Because it claimed to be a bulwark against communism, the South
African regime also received considerable implied support from Western powers, including the United States and Britain, which refused to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.

Ted Kennedy would have none of this. He embraced the anti-apartheid struggle and gloried in stating why the system of racial segregation and oppression was wrong and should be strongly opposed by the U.S. government.

In eight days in January 1985, Kennedy swept through South Africa, visiting Johannesburg townships and squatter camps in Cape Town. He met with anti-apartheid leaders including Winnie Mandela, the wife of the jailed Nelson Mandela, who was under draconian banning orders which confined her to her home and prevented her from meeting more than one person at a time. Kennedy championed Winnie Mandela as a fighter for democracy.

Kennedy's inspired campaign against apartheid culminated when he organized an illegal protest calling for the release of Nelson Mandela at Pollsmoor Prison. Defying orders of the South African police, Kennedy strode up to the gates of the prison and urged Mandela's release and the end of apartheid.

At that time Mandela was portrayed by many, including the mainstream media, as a controversial figure who espoused terrorism and communism. Kennedy helped to promote Nelson Mandela as a great democrat and freedom fighter.