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Kennedy Tours Migrant Workers’ Compound

January 7, 1985

SOWETO, South Africa (AP) _ Sen. Edward M. Kennedy toured a migrant workers’ compound with 16 men to a bungalow Sunday, and said later it was ″one of the most distressing and despairing visits″ of his life.

Kennedy went to a Mass in Soweto and visited three families in their homes before going to the Nancefield Hostel, home to about 8,000 men. Black migrant workers live in the hostels 11 months a year, separated from their families who don’t have permits to live in what is called ″white″ South Africa.

″Here, individuals are caught between trying to provide for their families or living with their families,″ Kennedy told reporters. ″I don’t know of any other place in the world where that kind of a cruel harsh choice (must be) made.″

The visit, he said, was ″one of the most distressing and despairing visits that I have made ... in my lifetime.″

The Massachusetts Democrat, a long-time campaigner against South Africa’s system of white domination, called the migrant workers’ system ″alien to every kind of tradition in the Judeo-Christian ethic, and I find it appalling here today.″

Kennedy arrived Saturday night for his nine-day visit to a reception that showed the divided state of black politics in South Africa and the obstacles blacks face in mounting protests in the country.

When several dozen anti-apartheid demonstrators jeered as Kennedy emerged from the VIP Lounge at the airport, police tore up the protesters’ placards. Organizers said seven people were detained and two arrested.

In Soweto, when Kennedy arrived to spend the night at the home of the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, black Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, hundreds of cheering blacks held candles high, sang hymns of welcome and ululated.

Kennedy said the demonstration reflected the polarization that occurs ″when the opportunities for peaceful, meaningful change are difficult, if not impossible.″

On the way to Soweto, police turned back two press buses, saying trouble was brewing in the segregated township. A van carrying six Kennedy family members also went back to a Johannesburg hotel. The senator and Tutu declined a police suggestion that they, too, return to the city until things calmed down.

Security police at Tutu’s house said the township of more than 1.5 million was peaceful, and reporters who went on their own saw no sign of a demonstration other than the joyous candle ceremony outside Tutu’s home.

Kennedy aide Gregory Craig said Sunday, ″They gave us false information. The only possible reason was they wanted the press to see only the demonstrations at the airport, and not the warm and beautiful welcome for the senator from the people of Soweto.″

Maria Mahlaba, a black mother of four who earns $42.50 a week working for a tea manufacturer, said in her four-room, cinder-block home, ″He must come and see how we live here. Maybe he can help the black people.″

At the hostel, Kennedy spoke with Wilson Ngobeni, 54, who has lived apart from his family of five children in the Gazankulu homeland for 20 years. Ngobeni said he earns $20 a week as a laborer.

″I don’t like to stay here without my family,″ Ngobeni said. ″The worst part is the loneliness.″

He said he had no choice but to leave his family in the homeland and work in Johannesburg because there were no jobs at home and his family would starve.

Eight men live in each of two rooms in the hostel bungalows, with a common kitchen in between. Nancefield is one of the oldest and largest hostels in the township.

Kennedy said of his initial impressions, ″There is a very strong majority of men and women of both races that want to see peaceful, constructive change, so there will be respect for human dignity and human liberty and social justice and economic progress.″

He planned to meet Foreign Minister R.F. Botha on Monday, and then to travel to a black village in ″white″ South Africa that the government wants to relocate to a black homeland.

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