Melanie Verwoerd

There's a reason the ANC adored Castro

2016-12-07 08:55

Over the last two weeks we saw thousands of people in Cuba paying their emotional farewells to Fidel Castro. Just 530 km away in Little Havana, Miami there were equally passionate scenes, only these Cuban-American exiles were celebrating his death. It is clear that Castro invoked deep feelings in life and death, not only in Cuba, but globally and also here in South Africa. 

There has been a particularly emotional attachment between the ANC and Cuba for decades. Many ANC comrades studied or received military training on the island whilst others underwent medical treatment in Havana.

During the post-1994 period I went on numerous parliamentary study trips, but the most emotive visit was definitely the one to Cuba in 1997, led by Pravin Gordhan. As a long standing member of the South African Communist Party, arriving in Cuba was a deeply emotional experience for him – as it was for many ANC members and frankly the few days we spent there were mind-blowing. To see socialism at work was fascinating and in some respects very liberating. Landing at Havana Airport was like stepping into another world. There were no advertising boards, no shops – in fact no sign of any commercial activities whatsoever and the cars were all original 1950s American models (one has to wonder what happened to all the old cars in the rest of the world!).

One of the most significant discussions we had was with the head of the big tertiary hospital in Havana, one of Castro’s big passions. The hospital was world-renowned for its work in transplant surgery. The professor gave us a tour and a talk on the impressive services they offered. During questions, someone asked him what he was paid. He took no offence and answered: “About one hundred dollars per month.” 

There was an astonished silence. Taking note of our shock, he added: “I am a very happy professional.” “How could you be?” someone challenged him. “Look,” he answered patiently, “I received my education for free, and all three of my children, who are doctors, also received their education for free. I get a house and a car from the state; I get food stamps; and once a year I go on a free holiday. And I don’t pay for medical services, of course. What more would I want? I can focus solely on the needs of my patients and serving them. I am not driven by the need to make a lot of money.” 

It sounded idyllic and certainly seemed a far more just medical care system, but we quickly discovered the darker side of the dream. Our Cuban translator told us how she had been forced to start working for the embassy to earn some foreign currency after she and her teenage son, having run out of food stamps for the week, fought over their last piece of bread.

On this visit, we did not meet Fidel Castro, who was unwell, but in September 1998 he visited South Africa and addressed Parliament. There was huge excitement amongst the ANC ranks in anticipation of his speech. Blade Nzimande even wore his red socks as he did six months earlier during Bill Clinton’s visit, but this time out of respect and not in protest. 

As with Mandela’s inauguration four years earlier, the ANC MPs started to chant as he entered the chamber. Even the gallery joined in with “Fidel Castro, Fidel Castor!” during a very lengthy applause, which the then speaker, Frene Ginwala, smilingly allowed. After all, this was the leader who, amongst others, was willing to send thousands of soldiers to Angola to help resist the apartheid regime’s army.

Castro was known for his beautiful use of words and the deeply philosophical nature of his speeches. This occasion was not to be any different. He started the speech by saying that his address was “the fruit of my imagination, like a love letter to a sweetheart written thousands of miles away, without knowing how she thinks or what she wants to hear, and without even knowing what her face looks like”. He apologised for going off on a tangent if some new idea struck him, since he considered a speech to be “an intimate and frank conversation”, during which, as he put it, he engages in a dialogue “with my interlocutors while looking at their faces, trying to persuade them”. (At this point he paused and looked over at Marthinus van Schalkwyk who was leader of the National Party, to the amusement of the ANC MPs.) 

At a few critical junctures throughout his lengthy speech, made even longer by the fact that he had his own translator next to him, he paused and made notes – it was clearly an intellectual at work. The speech was beautifully constructed and thought-provoking. At its conclusion, chants of “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” again rang through the chamber as he and Madiba slowly made their way out – with Madiba introducing his old friend to numerous MPs. There were very few dry eyes on the governing side of the house. 

This had also been the case when we left Cuba a few months earlier. As we were taken by bus to the plane on the tarmac, one ANC member started to sing a liberation song, declaring solidarity with and love for the people of Cuba. It was slow and deeply nostalgic and within seconds all the Cubans on the bus tearfully joined in. 

Of course around the world many also despised and hated Fidel Castro. They point out that, like many of his fellow Marxist leaders, Castro trampled on human rights in his attempt to build a more equitable society. That contradiction and the cruelty and suffering it caused, will haunt his legacy. Yet he was a revolutionary and hero for millions of oppressed people around the world. He was also one of the great political intellectuals of this century. His parting (and in retrospect visionary) words to South Africans in 1998 bear repeating now:
“Let us be more generous, more paternal, more humane. Let South Africa become a role model for a more just and humane world of the future. If you can make it, all of us can.”

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    fidel castro  |  nelson mandela
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