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Kennedy and South Africa


The last remnants of individual liberty are beginning to disappear in South Africa. The banning last week of Ian Robertson, the president of the National Union of South African Students, is only the latest outrage in a long campaign by the South African government to stifle all liberal opposition. But the implications of the Robertson banning reach far beyond the South African scene. Robertson was responsible for inviting Senator Robert F. Kennedy to come to South Africa to speak at a NUSAS conference, and the banning came only three weeks before Kennedy's proposed visit. As such, it must be interpreted as an attempt by the South African government to find grounds for cancelling, or at least postponing, Kennedy's visit.

Under the banning order, Robertson in effect loses all civil rights for five years. He is prohibited from participating in politics or in NUSAS activities, and he can enter the University of Cape Town grounds, where he is a student, only for the purpose of attending classes. "Banning" under South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act is the exclusive prerogative of the Minister of Justice, Johannes Balthazar Vorster, and cannot be tested in the courts. Appeal can be made only to the Minister himself, who is not likely to reverse his decision. Vorster has described the 20,000-member student union as a "cancer... tainted with Communism" and has attacked it for advocating integration in the universities and for electing Nobel Prize Winner Albert Luthuli as its honorary president.

The banning of the NUSAS president is probably the first step in an attempt to ban the organization completely. The largest remaining multi-racial organization in South Africa, NUSAS plays a vital role in preserving the anti-government minority centered around the English-speaking universities. As it has done in the past with the Liberal Party and the Defense and Aid Fund, the South African government hopes, by removing the NUSAS leaders, to intimidate the student union's members and brand the whole body as communist. Though Vorster has admitted (with unusual sophistication) that all members of NUSAS were not communists, he has maintained all communists were once members of NUSAS.

In spite of the government's attacks and smears, NUSAS continues to gain the support of the English-speaking students. When the government last year banned integrated dances at the Cape Town campus, the students voted not to have any dances at all. The day after the banning was announced last week, 3000 students and professors marched through the streets of Johannesburg in protest.

In accepting Robertson's invitation to address a NUSAS forum on academic freedom, Senator Kennedy handed the South African government one of its worst headaches in years. The thought of a civil rights champion holding forth in the bastion of white supremacy was only slightly less appalling to the South Africans than the prospect of refusing a visa to a possible future president of the United States. By stating his intention to visit South Africa in spite of the banning, Senator Kennedy has refused to abandon the South African students at a time when they most need outside encouragement. By associating himself with the cause of individual liberty in South Africa, he is setting an example which other Americans might follow.

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