Bobby Kennedy, and My Many Brushes with Greatness

By Tony McGregor


RFK on the cover of Time Magazine 16 September 1966. Artwork by David Stone Martin










Bobby Kennedy jabbed me in the stomach. I kid you not – he really did!

The occasion was the then annual Academic Freedom Lecture at the University of Cape Town UCT) on 6 June 1966. Kennedy had been invited to South Africa by the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) to deliver the lecture in the Jameson Hall on the UCT campus and I, as a chairperson of the Nusas Local Committee at the University of Stellenbosch at the time was invited to attend as a member of the platform party.

Kennedy was not the only US Presidential candidate I have met. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was another.

This is my little brag about some great people whom I have had the privilege of meeting, if mostly very briefly. I hope you’ll forgive me for it and enjoy the read!


Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on the cover of Time Magazine 26 August 1966










South Africa in 1966

Protest against apartheid within South Africa reached a climax in the late ’50s and early ’60s and was crushed by vicious security force actions.

The Rivonia Trial of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and others ended in 1964 with them all being sentenced to life imprisonment. They were in addition banned and “listed” and so their words could not even be reported on – they became non-persons across the freezing waters of Table Bay, inaccessible to all except a very few family members. Robben Island became a kind of symbol of repression and those icy dark waters surrounding it seemed to chill the hearts of all who opposed apartheid.

It was a time of fear and loathing, a time of repression when the real feelings of so many were kept bottled up. Security police people infiltrated every organisation, even church bodies, looking out for “subversives” and linksgesindes (left leaning people) so that everyone became scared – it was not safe to speak your mind, better just get on with daily life and scratching a living out of whatever presented itself as a possibility.

It was also the year of the assassination of the Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd by a man called Dimitri Tsafendas who claimed that a tapeworm had made him do it! Verwoerd was stabbed to death in the House of Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, on 6 September 1966.

A breath of fresh air

Into that dark and dismal winter of June 1966 when so much in South Africa seemed hopeless in the face of the all-powerful state and its machinery of oppression, suddenly this young man stepped off the plane at the airport then still called Jan Smuts in Johannesburg, and with his flashing smile and words of wisdom and hope brought a breath of fresh air, and allowed us to hope again: we were not alone in the world, there were some powerful people who knew, and cared, in the world outside.

So when Kennedy said, in his Academic Freedom address, “Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. And everyone here will ultimately be judged — will ultimately judge himself — on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort,” we knew what he was talking about.

The Nusas leadership had been vilified by the apartheid government for having the audacity, the sheer effrontery, to invite someone like Kennedy to address students.

The then-president of Nusas, Ian Robertson, had been banned earlier in a crude government attempt to embarrass Nusas and the Senator from New York.

We sat absolutely spell-bound listening to the wonderful oratory of the Senator, which included the now-famous line, “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 centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Again, those words resonated with us as we thought of the many thousands silenced and killed in our own country. It was a great affirmation of the indivisibility of freedom, of the hope that people could, each in their own spheres of life, make a difference. At the time that was not self-evident to us in South Africa.

How did he come to jab me in the stomach? It happened that all of us invited to join the platform party were also invited to meet the Senator in a committee room before the Affirmation of Academic Freedom lecture began. Kennedy though had spent a lot of time doing what politicians do – pressing flesh in a bar in downtown Cape Town and so was late.

We were standing in a rough circle when he came in and the Acting President of Nusas, John Daniel, was introducing the Senator to all of us when one of those responsible for the arrangements came in and said that we would really have to start. The Senator swung round from whomever he was greeting to follow the organiser and his elbow poked my stomach. He muttered an apology to me but I didn’t get to shake his hand as he left in a hurry to join the Academic Procession which was about to start.

The next day, I think it was, he was invited to speak at the residence Simonsberg at which I had been staying until the previous year, so I missed meeting him there. I did go to the home of famed South African industrialist Anton Rupert who had invited the Kennedys for breakfast where a group of students waited for hours to get a glimpse of the famous couple.


Jesse Jackson on the cover of Time Magazine 6 April 1970











Bernard Spong (left) and Bishop Tutu (right) talking with Jesse Jackson at the SACC offices, 1979. Photo from Bernard’s book “Sticking Around”









Bernard (back to camera) shaiking hands with Jackson after the sermon. Archbishop Selby Taylor at left. Photo from Bernard’s book “Sticking Around”








Jesse Jackson

When Jesse Jackson came to town I was working as press secretary to the South African Council of Churches (SACC) which was led at the time by then Bishop, now Archbishop, Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu.

Jackson had been invited to South Africa by the United Congregational Church of South Africa (UCCSA) in 1979 and his visit caused a media frenzy the like of which had not been seen in the country since Kennedy’s visit some 13 years before. Not to mention the paranoia of the police, who insisted on knowing every move the man made.

In addition to the visits planned by the UCCSA Jackson also attended the SACC’s annual conference which that year was held at a Catholic Seminary just north of Pretoria.

Jackson was due to give a sermon during the service which always formed part of the conference. This service was ecumenical, befitting the organisation. It was led by the then-president of the SACC, the Rev Sam Buti, a minister in the black Dutch Reformed Church; the then-Archbishop of Cape Town, the Right Reverend Selby Taylor; and as MC my good friend Bernard Spong, a Congregational minister.

Jackson’s visit had been the occasion of the spilling of incredible vitriol by some right wing organisations which had threatened violence. Word had come to some officials of the SACC that a particular organisation was going to send its “troops” to the seminary while Jackson was there.

To counter this a group of SACC staff was organised to patrol the perimeter of seminary’s grounds to watch out for the expected attack. I was one of those chosen to go on patrol and so spent most of the service walking around outside in the chilly, dusty darkness rather fearfully, it must be said, looking out for radical right wingers bent on doing the Rev Jackson some mischief. So I missed much of the service.

A day or two later I was standing on the steps of Diakonia House in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, which housed the SACC offices, where I was waiting for somebody, when an arm draped over my shoulder and this deep, US-accented voice said, “Yo bro”! How are ya doin’?” The Rev Jackson was on his way out and was just greeting me! We shook hands, and he and his large entourage sped off to his next engagement and I did not see him again.


Donald Woods with another great South African, Helen Suzman. From “Looking for Trouble”









Image from the website of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
















Some great South Africans I have also met

Of course the visitors from the US were of great interest to us in South Africa as we were somewhat isolated over the years, so there was great glamour in meeting special visitors like Kennedy and Jackson.

For me as a South African, though, I treasure even more the memories of many wonderful people from my own country that I have met, some fleetingly, some more intensively.

My very first job after leaving university in 1968 was as a junior reporter on the Daily Dispatch, at the time edited by Donald Woods, author of the book later made by Richard Attenborough into the movie “Cry Freedom.”

Donald was a remarkable man who had made the journey from being conventionally racist in his youth to being outspokenly anti-apartheid and a confidant of murdered Black Consciousness leader Steven Bantu Biko.

Working for him was an incredible experience, and I have him to thank for much of my writing ability.

Donald had met Bobby Kennedy when the latter was in South Africa in 1966, and had been invited by the Kennedy election team to spend a few weeks with them after Kennedy announced his run for the presidency in 1968.

Soon after he arrived back in South Africa we got the devastating news that Kennedy had been shot. Donald was rocked by the news, having spent some weeks in the man’s company and learning so much from him.

I was working at the time on the sub-editors’ horseshoe and Donald came in to personally supervise the laying out of a special edition of the Dispatch. We were all working feverishly to put it all together in a way that would satisfy Donald’s high standards.

He was working on a headline and suddenly asked, “If a comedian makes jokes, who makes tragedy?” I gave him the word “tragedienne” as he was writing the headline about Ethel Kennedy.

It was a rather fraught evening, or rather, early morning, and one sub-editor made the horrible mistake of cracking a joke. Donald turned on him in a blazing rage and almost threw him out of the building.

Another great South African I had the honour to know quite well was the great Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI of Durban. When he was consecrated as bishop in 1946 he was only 31, the youngest bishop in the Catholic Church at the time.

He became an outspoken critic of apartheid, basing his critique of the ideology and practice on his understanding of theology, which was both deep and broad. So much was his theological and liturgical knowledge and expertise valued by the Vatican that in 1961 he was appointed to the Central Preparatory Commission which planned the Second Vatican Council called by saintly Pope John XXIII. In fact his contribution there was described by one Dutch theological observer as the most important one made to the Council.

For all his brilliance he was a wonderfully warm human being with a fantastic sense of humour. He was guest speaker at a protest rally in Durban once and was introduced by the chairperson as “His Holiness” – a title normally reserved for the Pope. A nephew of his dame up to greet him at the end of the meeting and Hurley said to, “And how’s the Popes nephew today?”

Hurley spoke many languages fluently and could converse with ease in isiZulu, French, Italian in addition to English, of course. He also never forgot a name – once introduced to someone he would always recognise the person again even after many years and be able to greet them by name.

I still treasure a book he gave me with an inscription and his signature. He was the closest I’ll ever get to a Pope, I think!

Another great South African with whom I have had a very good relationship is of course the “Arch” – Desmond Tutu, who I written about elsewhere and is quite the most wonderful person I have ever known.

Just one story I would like to share with you which shows the greatness of the man. When my ex-wife’s mother lived with us in Johannesburg I was working for the SACC. Her name was Thora and she was dying of lung cancer. I had told him about her and he came especially to our house to meet her. Although she was a Catholic she took an immediate shine to him, and I think he to her.

From then on whenever he left to go overseas or to anywhere else by plane, he made a point of coming to our house to greet her on the way to the airport (we lived close to the road from the city centre to the former Jan Smuts Airport). It was a gesture of such grace that I will never forget it – a man with his busy schedule and international reputation taking the time to visit a sick old woman and give her his episcopal blessing. But that is the measure of the greatness of this man.

People are our greatest treasures

I have written here about some of the great people I have been fortunate to know to one degree or another. I think though that we always need to keep in mind that no matter the station or pedigree of a person, no matter their skills or accomplishments, each person is special.

My life would have been greatly impoverished without the caring friendship of so many people. People are the most wonderful gift – and if we treat each person with respect and love we will achieve far more than greatness, we will achieve personhood.

As the great Robert Burns wrote:

What though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man, for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that
The honest man, though e’er sae poor
Is king o’ men for a’ that

– © Tony McGregor. First published at