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Ted Kennedy - Human Rights Advocate, Apartheid Foe

U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, a long time champion of liberal causes, died Wednesday. Kennedy, 77, had been battling brain cancer. He had been in declining health since early this year.

Senator Kennedy was the youngest brother in the political dynasty that included President John Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy.

While best known for his work on domestic issues, Ted Kennedy was also known for his fight against apartheid in South Africa. He visited that country in 1985 and held an illegal protest outside of Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was being held. Kennedy also pushed for sanctions against South Africa, something the then-Reagan administration had opposed.

Jeremy Sarkin, former head of South Africa's Human Rights Committee, spoke with VOA from Cape Town, about the Kennedy legacy.

"The Kennedys have had a long association with South Africa. Certainly, not only Ted Kennedy, but the other brothers took a great interest." he said. "But certainly Ted Kennedy since the 1960s, since he joined the Senate…played a major part in the anti-apartheid struggle."

A different time, a different place

"Well, 1985 was…the height of the state of emergency. The schools were on boycott. There were tremendous demonstrations in the streets and there was tremendous violence in thecountry generally…. His role coming to South Africa was seen to be critical in terms of…the anti-apartheid developments that were happening," he said.

Upon his return to the United States, Kennedy pushed for sanctions against the white-ruled government.

"There was a lot of unhappiness with Ronald Reagan's approach to…'constructive engagement' with South Africa. Most anti-apartheid people believed that sanctions was the route to go and that there was a need for much greater pressure,' he says.

"South Africans look back at that particular time in terms of where South Africa has come…with a great deal of gratitude in terms of his role that he played in that important struggle," Sarkin said.

Strength and hope

The Nelson Mandela Foundation released a statement Wednesnday calling Senator Kennedy a "champion of democracy and civil rights." Of Kennedy's 1985 protest, Mandela has said it gave him a lot of "strength and hope."

Antonio Guterres, the head of the UNHCR, described Kennedy as a "tireless advocate for refugees."

In 1986, the U.S. Congress overrode a presidential veto to approve a ban on all new U.S. investments in South Africa, as well as a ban on many imports, including steel and coal.