Foreign Policy Blogs

RFK in South Africa: Another Era of U.S. Global Engagement

Today is a national holiday here in the U.S., celebrating the life and achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr.  There is nothing I could add to the many paeans to King (but I recommend that anyone needing a refresher look up his writings and speeches). But in thinking about the times King lived in and tumult of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, I am reminded of a key moment in which those struggles were linked to another similar case, South Africa.

In June 1966, Robert Kennedy, then a senator representing New York, traveled to South Africa during some of the darkest days of the apartheid era.  While there, Kennedy delivered the Day of Affirmation speech at the University of Cape Town and clearly connected the struggles for civil rights in the U.S. and South Africa:

I come here this evening because of my deep interest and affection for a land settled by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century, then taken over by the British, and at last independent; a land in which the native inhabitants were at first subdued, but relations with whom remain a problem to this day; a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier; a land which has tamed rich natural resources through the energetic application of modern technology; a land which was once the importer of slaves, and now must struggle to wipe out the last traces of that former bondage. I refer, of course, to the United States of America.

Robert F. Kennedy in South Africa - Photo Credit: Marion Kaplan

Robert F. Kennedy in South Africa – Photo Credit: Marion Kaplan

Later in the speech is a section that would eventually (two years later) be inscribed on Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery:

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 that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.

The speech is remarkable in many ways (it can be found in its entirety here). It was delivered to a mostly white audience, and to mostly students.  In the speech Kennedy appeals to them to champion real change and to draw on the dynamism of their youth and to make connections to other young reformers around the world.  It would take another 27 years for apartheid to end but Kennedy’s trip to South Africa is still remembered there as a notable event in the anti-apartheid movement.  It is less well remembered in the U.S.  But without the U.S. civil rights movement and the example of Martin Luther King, Jr, Kennedy’s speech as he gave it would not have been possible.

One of the great lessons of the speech for our era and for American foreign policy is that it does not seek to downplay the difficulties the U.S. was having in addressing civil rights.  Instead, Kennedy uses the U.S. struggles as a way to make a connection to South Africans. By doing so, Americans are positioned as fellow travelers on the long road to improve government and society, rather than seen as delivering haughty and pedantic lectures bent on teaching the rest of the world whatever it is we think we know best.  The key to global engagement is finding ways to truly engage, to connect with other people on issues that affect their lives, and ours.  That sort of engagement is a long process and involves knowing another country very well (as well as having a deep understanding of one’s own country) and building relationships in which working in partnership is the main component. It also requires a deep sense of humility and an understanding that the U.S. does not always have the answers.  The State Department and USAID work hard to train our diplomats and development professionals to work along these lines.  (Contractors are generally not as good at this, which is often no fault of the individual contractors but because of a system that values contractual “deliverables” and winning the next contract.)  It takes many years of experience and training to do the work of engaging the world on behalf of the U.S. (or any country); diplomacy and development are professions and not work to merely be farmed out to the lowest bidder.

I know a distinguished former U.S. diplomat and current international educator who carries a copy of Kennedy’s Cape Town speech in his briefcase wherever he goes as a reminder of why he does his work, and how it should be done.  Perhaps the speech should be required reading for anyone interested in how global engagement should work.



James Ketterer

James Ketterer is Dean of International Studies at Bard College and Director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program. He previously served as Egypt Country Director for AMIDEAST, based in Cairo and before that as Vice Chancellor for Policy & Planning and Deputy Provost at the State University of New York (SUNY). In 2007-2008 he served on the staff of the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education. He previously served as Director of the SUNY Center for International Development.

Ketterer has extensive experience in technical assistance for democratization projects, international education, legislative development, elections, and policy analysis – with a focus on Africa and the Middle East. He has won and overseen projects funded by USAID, the Department for International Development (UK), the World Bank and the US State Department. He served on the National Security Council staff at the White House, as a policy analyst at the New York State Senate, a project officer with the Center for Legislative Development at the University at Albany, and as an international election specialist for the United Nations, the African-American Institute, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He is currently a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has also held teaching positions in international politics at the New School for Social Research, Bard College, State University of New York at New Paltz, the University at Albany, Russell Sage College, and the College of Saint Rose.

Ketterer has lectured and written extensively on various issues for publications including the Washington Post, Middle East Report, the Washington Times, the Albany Times Union, and the Journal of Legislative Studies. He was a Boren National Security Educational Program Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and in Morocco, an International Graduate Rotary Scholar at the Bourguiba School of Languages in Tunisia, and studied Arabic at the King Fahd Advanced School of Translation in Morocco. He received his education at Johns Hopkins University, New York University and Fordham University.

Areas of focus: Public Diplomacy; Middle East; Africa; US Foreign Policy

Contributor to: Global Engagement

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