Thursday, September 6, 2012

The night I danced with Bobby Kennedy

When I was a student in the 1960s at the University of the Witwatersrand (known as Wits) in Johannesburg, I became involved with the anti-apartheid movement.  For all my life from when I entered high school, I could never quite understand two aspects of South African life.  The first was how people could justify treating people of different colours so differently from themselves.  Apartheid applied mainly to Blacks, but also to an ever-increasing extent, to South Africans who had Indian, Chinese, or Malayan heritage, as well as to people who were of mixed blood (called Coloureds, in South Africa).

The second puzzlement was how the Whites could expect the current situation to remain in place.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that suppressing 75% of the population and restricting the rights of another 10-15% was not a viable long-term strategy.  Yet most Whites either believed that it was or found it inconvenient or uncomfortable to wonder about it.
My family, in a conservative sort of way, was always against the Nationalist government, and for the most part, against apartheid too.  My mother was a member of one anti-apartheid group – the Torch Commando – and worked for the Progressive Party in our constituency, helping to send Helen Suzman to parliament many times.  My aunt, Jean Sinclair, founded a woman’s group – the Black Sash – that proved to be a thorn in the government’s side both or its consistent opposition to any law that discriminated and its steadfast provision of advice and support to those hurt by apartheid.

But it was the education system that really first caught my attention.  It made no sense to me that any government could, as a matter of policy, deny access to decent education to anyone, let alone the majority of the country.  So when I went to university, I joined the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and started to become involved in an effort to change things. 
Apartheid supporters - probably Special Branch police. Left sign reads "Send NUSAS leader and hangers-on to jail". The other reads "Keep your land clean, South Africa, from NUSAS and Communists".
In between playing cricket, rugby, and field hockey, I protested, marched, and wrote.  I edited the newspaper of the Johannesburg College of Education, called Campus, where I tried to draw the attention of future white teachers to what was happening in the education system in the country.  But, in reality, I probably had little impact on anyone.

However, there was one benefit to being editor.  I received invitations to events and, as I was also one of the photographers, I had the ability to wander around.  

It was one such invitation that led me to dance with a star.
Invitation signed by Bobby and Ethel Kennedy
In 1966, the president of NUSAS, Ian Robertson, invited Bobby Kennedy to visit South Africa to energize the opposition to apartheid.  I suspect it was to everyone’s surprise that he accepted.  I also suspect that the government was pressured by the USA to allow him to come.
Kennedy made five major speeches in his brief visit to South Africa.  The first, at the Day of Affirmation at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966, is regarded as one of the best speeches he ever made.  I attended his last speech on June 8, 1966, at Wits University.  It was the most political speech of his visit, probably because it was his last.  My invitation put me in the front row.  Although I do not have the article I wrote, I do still have some photographs I took.  The prints are worn and I can’t currently find my negatives to reprint them.
After the speech, there was a party at the home of Clive and Irene Menell.  Both were very active in the fight against apartheid.  Clive was a founder of the Urban Foundation in 1977, an organization created to improve the lot of black South Africans in Soweto and other urban areas.  

Despite government restrictions that made multiracial gatherings very difficult (for example, it was illegal to serve alcohol at multiracial gatherings), the after-party was mixed.  The atmosphere was electric – the enthusiasm that Kennedy’s presence and speeches had unleashed was incredible.  So what did we do?  We couldn’t drink, so we danced – not couples, but groups, lines, circles.  And Bobby and Ethel Kennedy danced with us.  And it was absolutely amazing.  For a moment we were free.
At the after-party
1966 is a long time ago.  But I remember Kennedy’s speech at Wits, and I remember vividly the emotions that flowed during the after-party dancing.  I’ll remember them for the rest of my life.

You can read or listen to Kennedy’s South African speeches at

Stan - Thursday


  1. Those of us who did similar things in the US in the 60s did only similar things. You took the real chances. My hat (dancing shoes, too) is off to you once more, Stan.

  2. Very moving, and very brave of you, sir.

  3. Stan, What a gorgeous story. Thank you for showing us that precious invitation and your photographs. You and your mother and your aunt are heros. I feel the hope of that moment--which took so very long to be fulfilled. I only wish I could hear the music and see the dancing--as I am sure you still can.

  4. Annamaria, heroes were aren't and weren't. We were privileged and living in an unjust society. It is a long and difficult conversation as to what the alternatives were. I continue to wrestle with what I (we) could have (should have) done. And sometimes wonder whether time is the only real catalyst of change.

  5. I would love to have that conversation one day.. In the meantime, with my bad typing and proofreading, I'm just grateful you aren't mad at me for calling you a bunch of sandwiches!

  6. I accidentally came across you blog, and remember how my mother who also went to listen to Bobby Kennedy at WITS on and off over the years has mentioned what an amazing talk that was! Thank you for recording your memories and your photos' for all of us

    1. Just in case anyone is watching, please note, this comment on Stan's blog of nearly four years ago, came in on the 50th anniversary of the event he describes. Coincidences happen.