Johannesburg — In his first policy speech since his arrival in South Africa, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, has exhorted the business community -- including more than 300 American companies operating here -- to take ``concrete actions'' toward helping blacks achieve fundamental rights. Senator Kennedy treaded softly on the key question of whether ``disinvestment'' by US firms or trade sanctions against South Africa is appropriate. He said he would make specific recommendations on disinvestment after his week-long trip to South Africa is completed.
But Kennedy said statements of ``good will'' by foreign and local businesses were no longer adequate. Speaking to business leaders from all over South Africa at a luncheon in Johannesburg Tuesday, Kennedy said the business community should take immediate steps to support South Africa's fledgling black trade union movement by, for instance, granting the unions greater access to corporate officials.
Kennedy chastised the South African government for locking up black labor leaders on ``trumped-up charges'' following a black worker strike last November. He also asked companies that fired workers during that strike to reinstate them.
The South African business community is paying close attention to what Kennedy says and does during his visit here. The business community -- including foreign-owned companies -- is extremely nervous about the apparent growing sentiment in the US for disinvestment or trade restrictions as tools for pressuring South Africa to change its system of racial segregation.
Hoping to preempt Kennedy's speech, six of the country's largest business organizations issued a joint statement Monday evening pledging themselves to ``furthering an ongoing process of economic and political reform'' in South Africa.
But the business organizations said reform would be hampered by US restrictions on trade or investment with South Africa.
Kennedy implied he was unimpressed with the amount of economic reform that the business community claims has already taken place. Kennedy said economic reform to date ``only slightly corrects a staggering inequity'' and has often been accompanied by continuing ``repression and retrogression.''
At the luncheon the US ambassador to South Africa, Herman Nickel, also attacked the notion that disinvestment by American firms would speed up change in South Africa as ``thoroughly unrealistic.''
Kennedy has received a somewhat mixed reaction in South Africa. The liberal Rand Daily Mail newspaper, which might be expected to be supportive of the Kennedy tour, seemed to sum up a common sentiment here in an editorial cartoon earlier this week.
The cartoon showed Kennedy wearing a 1988 presidential campaign button and grandstanding before television reporters.
Kennedy's visit has also sparked dissent among some blacks who also feel he is merely politicking. Others are unhappy that he is meeting with white government officials and moderate black leader Gatsha Buthelezi.
In the last few days his visit, Kennedy will tour the Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town, journey to Namibia, and return to Johannesburg before flying to Zambia en route to the US.