|Robert F. Kennedy in Soweto, South Africa 1966|
by Jelani Cobb
In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the University of Cape Town. He began by stating that he was there to talk about a country settled by the Dutch, which fought a bloody war of independence, and had then become an international pariah for its treatment of black people. He allowed a tense moment to pass and then added, “I’m here tonight to talk about the United States of America.” To an extent greater than most Americans recognize, but which Nelson Mandela understood implicitly, the United States and South Africa are products of kindred histories: both founded by settlers, both emerged from wars to overthrow British colonialism, both forged national identities on their respective frontiers. Before the election of Barack Obama allowed this country, albeit briefly, to indulge the idea of postracialism, Mandela was revered here as a proxy for the American past. His capacity to emerge from twenty-seven years in prison without bitterness broadcast the hope that this country’s own racial trespasses might be forgiven.
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