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Political freedom and economic rights go together

- Wits University

Political freedom means very little without economic freedom.

This is according to activists and politicians who united at Wits University on Monday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic visit by R.F. Kennedy to South Africa and the University in 1966.

The high level delegation included Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry Kennedy, as well as former president Kgalema Motlanthe; the US Ambassador, Patrick Gaspard; and the Director of the Wits Theatre, Gita Pather.

Ms Kennedy, President of the RF Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, said that there is an important lesson that students and South Africa are teaching the world.

“We can never set aside the importance of our civil liberties (basic human rights) both here and across the world, but it’s never going to work unless everyone has economic rights too.”

Without directly referring to the #FeesMustFall movement and the ongoing protests in the country, Kennedy said: “I think that’s a lesson that South Africa and the student leaders are teaching us now. That’s their message here and that’s a message that we need to embrace in our own country as well.”

It is the same prophetic message that her father delivered when he visited South Africa at the height of repression, during which he spoke to students and political leaders not only about civil rights but the importance of economic freedom, she said.

In his address, Mothlante said the youth needs to be brave and push barriers. Youth leaders have drawn a mixed reaction with their struggles for radical transformation in institutions of higher learning and of broader society.  

“We must encourage our youth, like Robert (did), to be radical. We must encourage them to bring radical perspectives… We will only progress as a society, as a country, if we innovate and strive for more freedoms.”

Motlanthe warned against “transmitting our fears to our young people, let them be – tomorrow belongs to them. The price for freedom is eternal vigilance. We can’t afford to lower our guard because we are comfortable in our comfort zones.”

A passionate cultural activist, Pather, interrogated human rights and the state of South Africa. In her speech, she asked hard questions about inequality, corruption and moral bankruptcy.

“Freedom and democracy are inextricably linked to the material wellbeing of people. A hungry man has no need for the vote.”

One in four South Africans will go to bed on an empty stomach. How? Why has this happened?

“Part of the answer lies in endemic state corruption aided and abetted by big business. In the last 20 years we have lost R700 billion to the pockets of corrupt government officials, money that could enable quality education, deliver health care and houses that are more than a shelter over a head,” Pather said.

Speaking at the event Ambassador Gaspard said, “We are honored to commemorate the 50th anniversary of RFK’s visit to South Africa, in particular, his historic ‘Ripples of Hope’ speech. His words continue to ring true and bring inspiration to Americans and South Africans. They created a current that continues today in the strong relationship shared by our two countries. The visit by Kerry Kennedy reminds us of the longstanding friendship we have shared, exemplifies the support of principled Americans for the anti-apartheid movement, and reminds us of the great leadership of individual citizens in both countries during a dark period of history.”

The discussion was facilitated by Prof. Tawana Kupe, Wits Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Artists and activists from the Wits Drama for Life programmes recited monologues from K. Kennedy's book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our WorldI, which shares the experiences of people who have faced marginalisation based on their race, gender and social status. View programme details.


About the lecture

The debate was part of the Development and Rights Dialogue hosted by the Wits School of Governance. Dialogue 5 of the Development and Rights Dialogue series is focused on commemorating Africa Month together with the 50th anniversary of the late Robert F Kennedy’s historic speech at Wits University on 8 June 1966. Senator Kennedy’s historic trip to South Africa is often considered the most notable visit made by any USA leader to South Africa during the apartheid era.

During his visit, Kennedy delivered memorable speeches including addressing Wits students on 8 June 1966.

These are the five formal speeches he delivered during his visit:

  1. June 6, 1966:  University of Cape Town, NUSAS Day of Affirmation – “Ripples of Hope” (
  2. June 7, 1966:  Stellenbosch University, Simonsberg Residence (
  3. June 7, 1966:  University of Natal, Durban (
  4. June 8, 1966:  Johannesburg Bar Council, Johannesburg (
  5. June 8, 1966:  University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (