Havana - President Jacob Zuma paid tribute to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, hailing him as “one of the greatest revolutionaries of our time and one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century”.

Speaking at a mass memorial rally in the Plaza de la Revolucion, Zuma, in a transcript of his speech, said: “We join the progressive forces of the world in mourning and celebrating the life of this renowned internationalist and anti-imperialist, who selflessly supported the struggles of the oppressed and exploited.”

Calling Castro's death at age 90 earlier in the week as a “painful loss for the South African people”, Zuma said: “He stood with us in solidarity, supporting our struggle, including the international campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. We knew that we could rely on Cuba, a trusted friend and ally of the oppressed.”

Zuma said that significantly, “the deep and undying special relationship between Cuba and Africa was cemented by the blood of heroic Cuban soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice for their belief in anti-imperialism, freedom and justice”.

According to Zuma, Cuba deployed close to half a million soldiers and officers in Africa, to support the struggles for national independence or against foreign aggression, over 30 years.

He highlighted Cuba's Angolan intervention as the greatest example of international solidarity that changed the course of history. “Comrade Fidel deployed combat troops, military advisors and equipment to defend Angola from an invasion by the racist South African Defence Force which was backed by negative proxy local forces,” Zuma said.

“The mission was also to liberate Namibia and boost the liberation efforts in South Africa between 1987 and 1988.

“It was this engagement that led to the epic battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, in which the Cubans forced the South African racist apartheid regime into a humiliating and devastating retreat. The historic defeat of the racist forces consolidated the victory of the MPLA in Angola and also laid the basis for Namibian independence in 1990, leading to South Africa's own liberation in 1994.

“We salute Comrade Fidel for this selfless sacrifice.” Cuba was not looking for gold, diamonds or oil in Africa, Zuma added. “The Cubans only wanted to see freedom and an end to the treatment of Africa as a playground of powerful nations while people suffered.” Recalling the Cuban leader's address to the South African parliament in 1998, Zuma quoted Castro on his Cuban soldiers in Africa: “From the African land in which they worked and fought voluntarily and selflessly, they only took back to Cuba the remains of their fallen comrades and the honour of having fulfilled their duty. That is why we know and value the human qualities of Africa much more than those that for centuries colonised and exploited this continent.”

Zuma continued: “We also recall the words of our (ANC) President Oliver Tambo at the meeting of the non-aligned countries here in Havana in 1979. He said Africans had come to know the Cuban people 'not merely by meeting them in their own country but because they live with us in Africa, they fight with us, they die with us, they fail and they win, with us. They have become part of the struggling people of our continent.

“Most significantly, we will remember Comrade Fidel as a great fighter for the ideal that the poor have a right to live in dignity,” Zuma added.

“That is why the Cuban revolution was and still remains an inspiration to South Africa and the world on how to achieve a better life for the poor.”

Zuma highlighted how today Cuba had higher health standards than many developed countries and had sent thousands of its doctors to many parts of the world.

“South Africa has gained many Cuban doctors in our hospitals and clinics, often in the most remote areas of our country,” he added. “In addition, many of our youth have qualified as medical practitioners in Cuba and many are continuing to study in this country. “Cuba had also opened the doors of its schools and universities for the education of many South Africans during our days in exile.” Zuma also expressed admiration for Cuba's unique value system, which included a deep sense of patriotism.

“This is something we want our youth to learn, as we build a new society based on human solidarity in our own country.” Zuma added that it was remarkable that Cuba had scored major achievements in human development despite “facing one of the fiercest and unjust economic blockades on any country, by the United States of America”.

“We will continue to support the efforts of lifting of the economic blockade of Cuba by the US. We urge the United Nations to play its role in the resolution of this decades long impasse.”

Zuma said that people should endeavour to take forward the ideals that Castro espoused, those of internationalism, freedom, equality, justice and a better and more just world.

“We must strengthen the voice of the South and deepen collaboration within the Group of 77 and China, within the Non-Aligned Movement, and now also within Brics.”

African News Agency