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Friday, January 22, 2010

On board at last ...

Today is Friday, 22 January, and I have finally climbed on board the blogosphere. Friends back home in South Africa have no doubt been wondering what I have been up to for the past five months as a Nieman fellow at Harvard. This is what I got up to last night:

I crossed the Charles River from Cambridge to attend a special screening of a film about Robert Kennedy's visit to South Africa in the 1960s. The film, RFK IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID: A RIPPLE OF HOPE was screened at the Kennedy Library Forum, a grand, imposing structure in honour of president John F Kennedy.

The film documented the Senator and his wife Ethel's unofficial trip to South Africa during the height of apartheid at the invitation of the National Union of SA Students. The filmmaker took a number of years to collect rare and grainy footage from that time - quite a feat, bearing in mind that there was no national television in SA (though it is likely there would have been a blackout of his visit anyway).
It is interspersed with footage from South Africa today, and includes interviews with NUSAS leaders - Ian Robertson, John Daniels and Margaret Marshall. It also includes interviews with Albertina Luthuli, the daughter of the late Chief Albert Luthuli.

Kennedy, with the help of his speechmaker Adam Walinsky, had a way with words. His "ripple of hope" speech had a big impact on the students whom he addressed during his visit. On his trip, he visited the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Wits. Kennedy also trekked secretly to a village in kwa-Zulu-Natal to visit the banned Albert Luthuli, who was under banning order and could not be in the company of more than two people at a time. Their meeting was held under the trees.

What was so special about the screening last night was that there was a panel discussion that included two of the key "stars" of the film: Margaret Marshall, who left South Africa a few years after Kennedy's visit and who is now the celebrated Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; and Albertina Luthuli, now an MP in SA. The other two members of the panel were the filmmaker Larry Shore and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's eldest child.

The film also shows the struggle for human rights and equality being waged by African americans back home at the same time. (NUSAS had invited civil rights leader Martin Luther King to SA the year before, but the apartheid government had declined his visa).

After the debate, my husband Steve and myself were invited to a small dinner hosted by the Chief Justice, Margaret Marshall, who in the Kennedy film is a rather naive-looking petite blonde student activist who had the honour of escorting the Kennedys around SOuth Africa during their trip. She remains as passionate about South Africa today as she was then, back in the 1960s. The chief justice is one of the most respected leaders in the judiciary in the state, and she has continued to champion human rights since being exiled from South Africa in the 1960s. I can't help thinking that she could play such a big role in the rebuilding of South Africa if she returned home....
The filmmaker hopes the film will be screened on SABC next year. The film captures a relatively unknown moment in SA history, and is definitely worth seeing.

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