During the annual Season of Nonviolence (from Jan. 30 to April 4 to June 5) we remember three extraordinary leaders who inspired millions of people worldwide by embracing nonviolent change and transcending conventional political constraints. They were subsequently assassinated.

Mahatma Gandhi died on Jan. 30, 1948; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968; and Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968. 

I grew up in apartheid South Africa where black South Africans were regularly thrown in jail for being undocumented (not having their migrant labor pass books). And millions of families were ripped apart by the apartheid migrant labor system.  

What is happening today to migrants in the U.S. is frighteningly similar. 

Gandhi, King and Robert Kennedy all advanced the cause of nonviolent change in apartheid South Africa.

Gandhi lived for 20 years in Durban, my hometown, a harbor city on the east coast of South Africa. He developed, refined and put into practice the political philosophy of nonviolent resistance (what he called “satyagraha,” truth power in Sanskrit), against the racially discriminating laws of the country. Gandhi’s satyagraha finally freed India from Britain’s imperial control. 

In 1912, Gandhi was present during the founding of the African National Congress (ANC), and his nonviolent philosophy became the ANC’s strategy of opposition to apartheid. Even though, toward the end of the struggle, the ANC did resort to a dual policy of armed resistance and economic sanctions, the peaceful international boycott of South Africa brought about the ultimate victory over apartheid.

Four years after South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk released ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison, Mandela and the ANC came to power on April 27, 1994, in the first democratic election in South African history.

And 20 years after he released Mandela, de Klerk said, “The boycott kept us

on our toes … . If we had not changed in the manner we did, South Africa would be completely isolated … . Our economy would be nonexistent … .”

(The Guardian, January 30, 2010.)

 In 1965, the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), of which I am a former vice-president, was circulating among the anti-apartheid community a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., which was banned by the apartheid government. It was called “Sleeping Through a Revolution” and was based on the story of Rip Van Winkle. When he fell asleep, the sign on the inn showed a picture of King George III, and when he woke up 20 years later, the sign showed George Washington. So he had slept through a revolution.

In his speech, King said, “We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over the world.”

Never before had I heard a speech of such metaphorical weight and political and philosophical depth. Never before had I understood so profoundly the revolutionary force of nonviolent resistance. The speech has stayed with me from that moment to this day.

At the end of 1965, Ian Robertson, the president of NUSAS, invited Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to South Africa.  Kennedy was seen as a future U.S. president and too famous to be refused entry by the apartheid government, so in its frustration, the government banned Ian Robertson instead.

Kennedy swept the country, emphasizing the need for peaceful democratic change.

In his final “Ripples of Hope” speech at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 

1966, Kennedy thanked Ian Robertson, “who cannot be with us today,” indicating an empty chair behind him that signified Robertson’s enforced absence. 

In Kennedy’s words, “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

After Kennedy had visited another banned leader, Chief Albert Lutuli, head of the banned ANC, he committed many acts of civil disobedience by quoting the chief everywhere he went.

Gandhi defined poverty as “the worst kind of violence.”  King was supporting striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee, as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated. And Kennedy had identified himself strongly with King and Césár Chavez, the nonviolent leader of the United Farm Workers, when he died.

Apartheid inflicted poverty on millions of South Africans. It is poverty that drives most migrants to the U.S. It is their experience of poverty that makes them the most hardworking group of laborers in this country.

Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy would all be resisting today the cruel and brutal treatment of migrant workers by the Trump administration. 


Clive Leeman lives in Ojai and writes about human rights issues.