'No Different Than Slavery: Kennedy's Anti-Apartheid Stance

While much has been made of Sen. Ted Kennedy's involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process, there is another country in which he is known for playing a pivotal role in helping to bring about peace and justice – South Africa.

In 1985 Kennedy visited the country on the invitation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an outspoken anti-apartheid activist. There, the United States senator saw first hand the discriminatory practices of the white South African government.

He stayed in a black township and held an illegal protest outside of Pollsmor Prison where Nelson Mandela was being held. Warned by the South African police not to take part in the demonstration, Kennedy walked up to the gates of the prison and handed officials a letter demanding the release of Mandela.

His visit was condemned by both the white South African government and the Reagan administration who at that time believed in a policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa.

Kennedy's Visit: The Beginning of the End

Kennedy's visit "helped to begin to undermine white South African confidence," Dr. Daniel Conway, a lecturer at Loughborough University in Britain who specializes in the white anti-apartheid movement, told ABC News.

"Here was this U.S. senator coming to South Africa saying we need sanctions and we need apartheid to end now. It made it more difficult for the South African government to say what we're doing is absolutely fine... and that our allies in the United States are totally behind us," Conway says.

For all the attention his historic visit to South Africa received, it was Kennedy's actions when he returned home that many apartheid experts believe was a catalyst to the beginning of the end of the oppressive regime.

Kennedy championed the 1985 Anti-Apartheid Act, a bill that proposed the most comprehensive sanctions against the South African government of any Western government at the time. The bill banned imports, exports, employment, and loans to be given to the South African government from the United States government or U.S. companies. It declared that "it shall be U.S. policy to impose economic sanctions against South Africa if, within 12 months but not later than January 1, 1987, significant progress has not been made toward ending apartheid."

The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Bill

President Reagan vetoed the bill twice, but a year later a less-extensive Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid bill was passed, overriding Reagan's veto, the first overridden foreign policy veto in the 20th century.

Kennedy was an active and vocal advocate of the bill and of changing the U.S. policy towards South Africa. The South African government claimed that the African National Congress, also known as the ANC, was a communist organization and that its policy of apartheid was not about oppression, but keeping the country from following the West's enemies during the Cold War, an argument Kennedy publicly disputed.

"He said 'this is no different than slavery in the American south. This is about racism, this is totally wrong," says Conway. "Because it was Ted Kennedy, from the Kennedy family and a senior senator, that meant that his words and deeds had a much greater resonance in South Africa and the United States."

After the bill was signed into law on Oct. 2, 1986, other Western governments began similar measures, and many Western companies including General Motors and Chase Manhattan Bank began to stop doing business in South Africa.

Events in South Africa began to shift as well, with protests growing and the South African government's tactics becoming increasingly violent. Eventually pressure, both domestic and international, forced the white government to end the policy of apartheid which culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela in 1994 after 27 years of captivity.

South African leaders, including Mandela through his foundation, President Jacob Zuma and members of the ANC mourned Kennedy's passing and paid tribute to his anti-apartheid work.

"Senator Kennedy, one of America's greatest senators, was a passionate and committed supporter of our anti-apartheid struggle. When he visited South Africa, he stayed with us in our house in Soweto for one night" said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a statement. "We and the world owe him much."