Brothers in arms

2015-07-01 09:30
Yusuf Bhamjee

Yusuf Bhamjee (File)

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WE welcome heartily the Cuban Five to our shores. The fact that two of them fought alongside Angolan forces against apartheid aggression in the southern African region makes their visit especially poignant.

The support of ordinary working men and women all over the world was very important in fighting apartheid. The African National Congress identified international solidarity as one of the pillars of the struggle.

Cuban solidarity was, however, different from other anti-apartheid movements. For Cuba, it was not just about civil society activism. Following the revolution of 1959, the Cuban state worked actively in alliance with liberation movements and independent states in Africa. The Cuban internationalist spirit was essential in sustaining governments and economies across the developing world.

Fidel Castro’s powerful statements over three decades condemning apartheid are well known.

At the first summit of heads of state and government of the Non-Aligned Summit (NAM) in Belgrade in September 1961, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado made a strong statement denouncing apartheid.

At the 1961 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva, the legendary Che Guevara, then Cuba’s minister of industry, said that South Africa “violates the charter of the United Nations by the inhuman and fascist policy of apartheid”. He called for apartheid South Africa’s expulsion from the United Nations. Speaking at the 19th general assembly of the UN in New York in December 1964, Guevara again pointed to the UN’s failure to act against apartheid.

By far the greatest contribution made by Cuba was to commit its military resources to freedom struggles and to train young people with skills to make a difference in their home countries. In 1975, Cuba sent its military to defend Angola’s MPLA against the special interest of the United States in strengthening apartheid South Africa as a bastion of imperialism and a launching pad for aggression against independent Africa.

Sending troops abroad was at great risk to Cuban security, which faced the continuous prospect of destabilisation by the U.S. After a series of military defeats, the South African Defence Force was forced out of Angola, eventually paving the way for Namibian independence. The Battle of Cuito Canavale in 1987-88 was a decisive victory in turning the tide against apartheid.

A little-known fact is that Cuban and Angolan doctors were responsible for saving the life of Major Wynand du Toit, the SADF recce commando captured by Angolan forces in 1985 while on its way to blow up oil installations in Cabinda. Du Toit was badly wounded and at great risk of having his arm amputated. Working in a rudimentary field hospital, Cuban and Angolan doctors restored him to health. In 1987, Du Toit was exchanged for two MK soldiers and 133 Angolan soldiers held by apartheid forces.

Swapo won the first election in Namibia on March 21, 1991, and the last Cuban troops left Angola on March 25, 1991. The stability of Angola and the independence of Namibia were essential to the defeat of apartheid in South Africa. The formidable Cuban role tilted the balance of forces.

Freedom has to be supported by key skills. Thousands of students from Africa, Asia and Latin America have benefited from high-level training in Cuban universities in fields ranging from engineering to medicine. By 1988, some 16 000 students were educated at the Isle of Youth, as the main school came to be known. The late ANC veteran Phyllis Naidoo gave her library of several thousand books as a gesture of thanks to the Cuban people for having educated one of her sons to be a physicist.

Among those organising South African students to study in Cuba were the late Blanche and Alex la Guma. A renowned author from District Six, Alex was the ANC chief representative in Havana. His books were banned in SA but he achieved renown all over the world.

The Cubans remain committed to their internationalist duties. Thousands of doctors, engineers and other specialists travel abroad every year, giving freely their expertise where it is needed. South Africa has been a beneficiary of this solidarity for the past 25 years.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S., Cuba offered humanitarian aid and specialist support, which the U.S. government rebuffed. A chance handshake between presidents Raul Castro and Barrack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s funeral opened the door to a thawing of relations between Washington and Havana.

Much of the Cuban exile community in the U.S. which fled Cuba after the revolution is opposed to this normalisation of relations. They continue to plot terrorist attacks against Cuba. The Cuban Five were deployed to infiltrate these organisations and provide warning to fend off potential attacks. None of them carried guns or harmed anyone during their mission. In spite of this, they were sentenced to life terms by the U.S. and were pardoned by Obama only last year. South Africa delights in receiving them as heroes in the cause of freedom.

• Yusuf Bhamjee is a member of the provincial executive committee of the ANC in KZN and mayor of uMgungundlovu District Municipality

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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