South Africa

In very different ways, Robert F. Kennedy and Henry A. Kissinger have become part of the rich urban folklore of South Africa's black ghettoes. The names of the two most important American visitors ever to come to a country captivated by the American way of life crop up frequently and spontaneously in conversations here.

"This is the house Bobby Kennedy went into," a resident of Soweto said, braking to a sudden halt as he drove by one of the 100,000 small brick boxes with ill-fitting roofs that house Johannesburg's black population.

"The city government wanted to take him to a showpiece part of Soweto, but he made them stop here and he went right into this one," said the man, part of the crowd, that followed Kennedy on his tumultuous 1966 visit through this housing compound. "This place is like a shrine now."

Not all of Kennedy's efforts at meeting the people were that successful. "In Pretoria, he started walking toward a workman who was sitting on a curb eating a sandwich," another black South African recalled, "and that man started running away as fast as he could move.

"In 1966, if you saw a white man coming toward you, you knew he was going to scold you, ask you if you wanted a day job or arrest you," the black explained.

Kennedy came at the invitation of white liberal students who were trying to work for integration here in the land of apartheid. His assassination two years later ended their hopes of immediate outside aid, and government harassment broke their organization shortly afterward.

Kissinger's visit last September - at the invitation of Prime Minister John Vorster - has also assumed mythical aspects for whites and blacks here. As an effort to use American influence to obtain a Rhodesian settlement, the mission accomplished little more than awarding Vorster new international prestige.

"We know that Kissinger came and Vorster took him and his wife to Kimberley and gave Mrs. Kissinger a big diamond," a young black student in Cape Town said emphatically but inaccurately. "And then he went away saying what a nice man Vorster was."

Many whites remember the contacts wistfully as a moment when it looked like the United States might bail them out. Vorster associates assert that the two portly Teutonic statesmen got along very well, even though Vorster claims to have beaten Kissinger at chess during their meetings in Bavaria and Zurich last summer.

Moreover, official American reticence in commenting on the shooting and killing of unarmed blacks last summer smoothed the way for better relations.