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A relationship that’s rooted in common solidarity

Cuban President Fidel Castro with President Nelson Mandela during the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation held in Geneva, on May 19, 1998. South Africa’s bonds of friendship with Cuba are deeply rooted in our region’s Struggle for liberation, says Minister Naledi Pandor. File picture: Patrick Aviolat/EPA

Cuban President Fidel Castro with President Nelson Mandela during the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation held in Geneva, on May 19, 1998. South Africa’s bonds of friendship with Cuba are deeply rooted in our region’s Struggle for liberation, says Minister Naledi Pandor. File picture: Patrick Aviolat/EPA

Published Mar 27, 2022


By Dr Naledi Pandor

South Africa’s bonds of friendship with Cuba are deeply rooted in our region’s struggle for liberation. Were it not for the selfless intervention of the Cubans in Southern Africa over the course of three decades, it would have taken far longer to liberate this region from colonial oppression.

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Nelson Mandela understood this, which is why Cuba was the first country outside the continent he visited upon his release from prison in 1990. Cuba made monumental sacrifices to fight alongside African liberation movements at a time when the small island nation had been struggling under the US economic embargo for a decade and a half.

That embargo has been continuing for over six decades and has been tightened over the years in the hopes of achieving regime change in that country. Cuba’s economic crisis has become untenable, and the Cuban government has been asking for humanitarian aid since last year. Mexico, Bolivia and Russia are among the countries which have provided humanitarian aid to ease the island’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Cuba is struggling to get the most basic necessities, including food and medicine, for its people due to the restrictions imposed by the US economic embargo. Tourism, which Cuba’s economy relies on, has collapsed due to the pandemic and unemployment is soaring. International solidarity in conditions like this are essential, and Cuba relies on its friends to provide relief, which is why South Africa had agreed on providing the island nation with R50 million in humanitarian assistance.

The funds would come from the African Renaissance Fund at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation and used to buy food grown in South Africa and other consumer goods manufactured here at home.

The African Renaissance Fund is legally constituted to implement humanitarian assistance of this nature. The case to prevent humanitarian aid to Cuba is an illustration of the lack of knowledge about the role of Cuba in our Struggle for freedom.

The magnitude of the economic crisis in Cuba caused by the ongoing US economic embargo cannot be overstated. The tough measures imposed by former US president Donald Trump’s administration, which reversed former president Barack Obama’s process of rapprochement with Cuba and reinforced the embargo, have paralysed investment.

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Other measures imposed by the US which devastated the Cuban economy have included the restriction of flights to Cuba and the banning of all cruises, the imposition of a limit on remittances, the tightening of sanctions on international banks that do business with Cuba, and the reinstatement of the country on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

President Joe Biden has not lifted those sanctions or provided any kind of relief for the Cuban people. This week we are commemorating the battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the critical role Cuba played in assisting African liberation movements to destroy the myth of white invincibility.

There was no material gain for the Cubans who came to our support, but their overriding incentive was to fight for the liberation of Southern Africa from colonial and reactionary forces.

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The late Cuban leader Fidel Castro was driven by revolutionary zeal, and he told his comrades they were fighting for “the most beautiful cause of mankind”. From Angola to Namibia and Algeria to Guinea Bissau, Cuba played a decisive role in contributing to the liberation of these African countries from colonial occupation.

If we reflect on our history, in 1975, the South African Defence Force (SADF), with the CIA’s active involvement, invaded Angola to assist Unita in its attempt to seize power from the ruling left-wing MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government.

The Angolan government requested assistance from Cuba, and given the real prospect that apartheid South Africa could have crushed the MPLA, Castro took a principled decision to send Cuban troops to support the MPLA. Between November 1975 and January 1976, Cuban troops and planes poured into Angola.

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As a result of Cuba’s intervention, South African troops started leaving Angola, withdrawing across the southern border into Namibia. The Cuban and MPLA forces were unable to oust the South Africans from Angola, and so the Cubans withdrew to a 700km defensive line which they manned for over a decade.

Cuba’s ultimate success in Angola was precipitated by a major South African attack, which forced the demoralised MPLA fighters to withdraw to the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale.

The town could have been overrun by the SADF, which would have changed the direction of the war. Had the SADF seized the initiative, the interior of the country could have ended up under Unita’s control. Instead, 120 Cuban troops rushed to the town to help organise the defences.

The town was repeatedly bombed by the SADF, but the defenders resisted and were reinforced by 1500 elite troops that arrived from Cuba in December 1987. Late ANC leader Oliver Tambo reportedly referred to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale as “the Waterloo of racist South Africa”.

The significance of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is that it bought time for the Cuban-Angolan side to turn the tables, and by April 1988, they launched a breathtaking offensive in the south-west that changed the course of the war. By the year’s end, the tables had been dramatically turned on the SADF, resulting in an epic regional change in favour of African liberation. Cuba had been the decisive element in turning the tide of the Angolan war in favour of Angola’s liberation movement.

The military successes against the South Africans led to the negotiations in London on June 4, 1988, between Angola, Cuba, South Africa and the US. Reading the balance of forces, the South Africans gave up, and the last SADF soldier left Angola in August 1988.

In December 1988, South Africa accepted Cuban demands to abandon Angola and facilitate Namibian independence. Namibia became independent in March 1990. It is fitting that at Freedom Park, the names of the 2 070 Cuban soldiers who fell in Angola between 1975 and 1988 are inscribed alongside those of the South African revolutionaries who died during the decades-long Liberation Struggle.

The internationalists were motivated by a single goal – the end of racist rule and the establishment of genuine African independence. Freedom came at a great cost, and Cuba, a country under siege at the time, departed Angola after 13 years of fighting to defend Angola’s sovereignty with only the bodies of their fallen comrades.

Cuba has consistently provided medical and other assistance to South Africa in the post-1994 period, most especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is our moral obligation to show solidarity with the people of Cuba at a time when they are struggling to survive.

* Pandor is the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.

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