Willem van Drimmelen in aksie

Robert Kennedy besoek Simonsberg Koshuis in 1966
Gustav Loubser 2013

Sen Robert F Kennedy
 The story of Simonsberg cannot be told without mentioning Robert F Kennedy and his indelible legacy. His visit to the Withuis on 7 June 1966 remains one of the most important events in the history of this residence, and to this day is a source of pride for many Simonsbergers.Senator Kennedy came to South Africa in June 1966 during the height of Apartheid. It was an unprecedented trip that included visits to Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg and Durban  significantly, he also visited the Soweto township and met with Chief Luthuli. The speech he delivered at the University of Cape Town is widely considered to be his greatest, with the “Ripple of Hope” paragraph one of the most quoted paragraphs in American politics:voorgras“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 which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”The day after delivering this speech, Kennedy came to Stellenbosch University. He had initially been invited by a student organisation, “Die Stellenbosse Aktuele Aangeleentheidskring”, but this invitation had to be withdrawn because of pressure from the university’s SRc. A suggestion was then put forward by some residents to invite him to Simonsberg to have lunch and deliver a speech. This suggestion caused some unrest and division within the residence, with Kennedy’s liberalism at odds with the conservatism of the time. Eventually after two huisvergaderings it was agreed that he should be invited. A large amount of credit must be given to Willem van Drimmelen (Primarius in 1966) who facilitated the visit and corresponded with Kennedy in the weeks leading up to the visit.


 So it was that on 7 June 1966, in the face of strong criticism by the pro-government university administration, Robert F Kennedy came to Simonsberg. There was some trepidation amongst the hundreds of students waiting on the Simonsberg voorgras, not knowing what to expect. From the moment they saw him, the ice was broken  everyone within reach had their hand shaken, even the coloured cleaners and gardeners. As Kennedy entered the Eetsaal in Simonsberg, he received a rousing welcome from the residents with the traditional banging of spoons on the tables.Willem en KennedyIn his introduction, van Drimmelen made the following remark:

“I might just mention to Senator Kennedy that he has reached the White House sooner than he could think. Because this hostel of ours is, Senator Kennedy, known, or nicknamed the White House. (…) Therefore it definitely has come sooner than I think you thought.”

Kennedy’s visit was indeed iconic. His genuine willingness to listen and try understand a different point of view set him apart and endeared him to everyone who encountered him. His words embodied the very core of Nobless Oblige, the motto of Simonsberg:

“We all owe our very existence to the knowledge and talent and effort of those who have gone before us. We have a solemn obligation to repay that debt in the coin in which it was given — to work to meet our responsibilities to that greater part of mankind which needs our assistance — to the deprived and the downtrodden, the insulted and injured.”

A transcript and audio recording of the speech he made that day is available here.

 Tragically, Kennedy was assassinated on 6 June 1968  almost two years to the day since his visit to Simonsberg. But, though he never made it to the White House in the USA, his visit to the Withuis and to South Africa made a significant impact, planting the seeds for the change that would come to fruition many years later.


Cara Cuomo and Kerry Kennedy, grand-daughter and daughter of Robert F Kennedy, visiting Simonsberg in August 2012