In 1966, the late Robert Kennedy went to South Africa, then at the height of its white supremacy power and mineral wealth. Apartheid was the law of the land, and the leaders thought they held the world hostage to their gold and platinum production. Yet the country was gripped by a looming sense of isolation from the world, compounded by their limited media - no TV, the state owned the radio stations.
The one glimmer of light on was the newspapers which enjoyed a large amount of freedom.
Into this dictatorship of whites over the black majority that outnumbering them 4 to 1 came this charismatic American. He drew crowds by thousands wherever he went – in the dusty forlorn townships and in the marble halls of academe where students hung from trees to listen in.
It is hard to imagine how powerful this was at the time. In America, he was a candidate for president – one of many, in a land cluttered with political contenders. But in South Africa, it was as if he was the only story and the newspapers hummed with Kennedy’s words such as these, made in Cape Town:
“Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power....to share in the decisions of government which shape men's lives. Everything that makes man's life worthwhile…..all this depends on the decisions of government; all can be swept away by a government which does not heed the demands of its people, and I mean all of its people…..not just to those of a particular race, but to all of the people.”
To white and black audiences alike, he spoke openly on these issues of freedom and liberation. Both were inspired - but differently. The whites were uplifted in the same way people listening to a sermon on a Sunday tend to forget about it on Monday. Some even thought the attention brought by the world would help them understand "the situation": that whites were advanced while the blacks were from primitive past where violence ruled – so how else could they run the country?
To the blacks it was a different story altogether. They understood very little of American politics and the cheap global grandstanding our political candidates are wont to do. Instead, they saw a white man from a powerful land that was not a former colonialist, who had a transcendent aura thanks to the Kennedy name. To have this man stare into the eyes of the white oppression that had trapped them in poverty and tell them it was wrong, was more than words. It was a signal that white people outside of this country would actually support them against the white government if as they say, push came to shove.
10 years later, in 1976, the youth of South Africa revolted and the War of liberation began. Push had came to shove.
In 1990, Mandela the head of the black government-in-waiting was released after 27 years in jail and by 1994, the country had become a democracy.
It was Robert Kennedy, as part of his campaign tour, that had set it off.
In 2009 a freshly inducted President Obama went to Egypt to tell the Arab World that he supported their desire for freedom. The speech was couched in a lot of American policy along with a lesson in tolerance for Israel. To us, that speech sounded like an apology for American foreign policy with some high-minded stuff about liberation in a country that had been run but a dictator for close to 40 years.
What Egyptians heard was probably quite different. Here was an American president who looked a lot more them than any other American president before and he came to speak to them publicly about liberation with these words:
“The fourth issue that I will address is democracy.
I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years…..I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere….”
It was a small part of his overall speech and wordier than anything RFK had proclaimed, but that hardly mattered. What they most likely heard was, “I believe in liberation, I’m like you, and I’ve got your back.” Thanks to the Internet and Satellite TV, it took a lot less time for the idea to get around and it took just 2 years for Mubarak to fall.
There’s no point in trying to predict what Obama might do in Libya. If he had to pick one Middle Eastern tyrant to take out that would also get general support in the region, it would certainly be Gaddaffi. But that may not be this president’s style. Words are one thing, actions another.
Yet, at certain inflection points, words matter more than actions because they have the power to set the population in action.
It may be more instructive to ask what inflection point we are facing in the U.S. that could be set of by the words of a significant visitor?
What if Saudi’s King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan or his next in line Niyaf, made a tour of the US giving speeches that shook our foundations? Something along the lines of: “Why do you depend on us for energy and put all that pressure on our region when you have your own damn oil, gas, coal, wind, ethanol and cow methane to exploit?
“You say you love the environment and you despise wasters of energy, but who among watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in an unconditioned theater? Is your SUV now smaller than the car you drove 20 years ago? Is your house more petite? Are there fewer devices plugged into your wall?
“The truth is you want to import our lifeblood and export your environmental risk and so, we are no longer taking your money…..!”
At that point, the energy-starved, overcharged masses will rally at their local town halls and occupy Congress shouting “we want our gas, we want our drilling, make our trucks use natural gas, get me nuclear energy now! And sure, get us some solar and wind along the way.”
When others look at us, they ask why we don’t take full environmental responsibility for the energy we consume. We look the other way just as other oppressors do. The difference is that our oppressed has no voice – it is our economy and it cries in red ink.
© Alan Brody 2011