Cuba's Fidel Castro enjoys a light moment with former President Nelson Mandela. Picture: AFP

The world woke up on Saturday morning to the shocking news that Fidel Castro passed away on Friday night in Havana at the age of 90. The news reverberated throughout the ranks of the ANC’s National Executive Committee who are meeting in Kempton Park on Saturday. Members were emotional remembering the contribution of Castro to South Africa’s liberation struggle, as well as the struggles of liberation movements across the continent.

At great cost to his own country, Castro took a principled stand against colonial occupation on the African continent, deploying Cuban troops in Algeria, Guinea Bissau, Congo and later Angola. At times Cuba’s military intervention in Africa accounted for more than 11% of Cuba’s national budget at a time when the country was suffering under a punishing US economic blockade.

President Jacob Zuma expressed his condolences to the Cuban people saying, “Castro led the Cuban revolution and dedicated his entire life not only to the freedom of the Cuban people and the right of the Cuban state to sovereignty and self-determination, but also the freedom of other oppressed people around the world.”

Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies spoke to Independent Media from the NEC meeting saying, “Castro was one of the giants of the revolution in the 20th century. He played a pivotal role in the liberation of Southern Africa, particularly in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale – the Stalingrad of apartheid. Castro showed incredible solidarity and ensured that our fighters prevailed, making the transition in South Africa unstoppable.”

The first foreign leader outside of Africa which Nelson Mandela had visited after being released from prison was Fidel Castro, who he wanted to thank for his solidarity in the liberation struggle.

Talking in a documentary produced in 1990, President Nelson Mandela had explained his loyalty to Cuba and its leader Fidel, “The first country we approached was the United States of America. We could not even succeed to come close to the government, and they refused to assist us. But Cuba, the moment we appealed for assistance they were ready to do so and they did so,” he said. “Why would we now listen to the Western world when they say we should have nothing to do with Cuba? It is just unreasonable.”

Cuba’s solidarity with the African continent never waned, and for decades Castro and later his brother Raul sent Cuban doctors to assist in primary healthcare in the most far flung rural areas in Africa.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi paid tribute today to Castro’s contribution to the provision of health services around the world. “Through the Mandela-Castro initiative, Castro sent doctors to South Africa to work in rural hospitals. Cuban doctors are taught to work in primary health care which is what the world needs, and in this way Castro was ahead of his time.”

Motsoaledi highlighted the fact that 500 South African students qualified in medicine in Cuba and are now working as doctors in South Africa. There are also 3 000 South African students currently studying in Cuba, which is twice the total that qualify every year in South Africa.

“Cuba was also the first country to respond to the Ebola crisis in west Africa, and sent more healthcare workers to deal with the epidemic than any other country in the world. While South Africa sent mobile laboratories and experts to test, we were unable to send healthcare workers to do the real work, like Cuba did.

Astounded by Cuba’s self-sacrifice both in West Africa and around the world, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon summed up their contribution in January 2015, “They are always the first to arrive and the last to leave, and they always remain after the crisis. Cuba has a lot to show the entire world.”

Castro and his comrades were inspired by the maxim of the 19th century writer revolutionary Jose Marti “Patria es humanidad” – All of humanity is our homeland. What distinguishes Cubans is that they not only believe in this maxim, but they practice it to the fullest. Castro was the embodiment of this selfless approach to the world.

Foreign Bureau