On the reasons for visiting Cuba

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It is difficult for South African government representatives to hide their excitement. They are off on a trip to Cuba where they will engage in an "intense parliament to parliament engagement program" this week. 

Already we have been treated to photos of brightly coloured vintage cars along with predictable Cuban cigars. Delightful photos that I would be thrilled to receive from my cousin Jeremy and his much younger wife. Because they are paying for their own trip and can do whatever they want with their hard-earned cash. I would hardly feel the same if he bullied me into funding it. 

South Africa is in a recession. Not because of the global economy. Not because we don’t have the resources or the talent or the desperate desire to better the country. But because the past government has all but bled the economy dry. 

Instead of focussing on economic growth, they focussed on state capture which resulted in billions and billions of South African Rand landing up in the wrong hands. Many of those hands are no longer in the country. 

As a result, funds that could have and should have been used for education, healthcare, policing and to create jobs never reached the people of South Africa. VAT was raised, petrol levies increased, and the economy shrank. 

This makes the sojourn to Cuba all the more frustrating. Aside from the obvious benefit of having Baleka Mbete and Jackson Mthembu out of the country at the same time, I can hardly think of any other reason that this trip could be worth spending any money on. 

I suspect that the delegation knows that too. Late on Sunday, the Parliament of RSA tweeted the following in an attempt to find validity for the trip: "Cuba played a key role in our struggle to end apartheid," and then went on to explain that former president Nelson Mandela visited Cuba in 1991. 

As though this would cause us to sit back, now satisfied, because it all finally makes sense. Only, it doesn’t. On the contrary. South Africans have learned that when the government relies on the goodwill and memory of Nelson Mandela, that is exactly the time to be careful. 

Cuba is not an example of success. It is non-democratic and one of the world’s leading human rights abusers that brutally controls an impoverished and desperate population. There is no freedom of speech with voices of dissent routinely arrested and silenced. 

According to UN Human Rights Watch in a report published in November 2017, "The Cuban government continues to repress and punish dissent and public criticism. The number of short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others was significantly less than in 2016, but still remained high, with more than 3,700 reports of arbitrary detentions between January and August 2017. The government continues to use other repressive tactics, including beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, and termination of employment."

One has to wonder how the South African government is able to ignore what is obvious to the rest of the world? Does the history of the support shown to the struggle movement nullify all responsibility towards the people of Cuba, who suffer some aspects of the repression endured under a brutal apartheid regime; namely denial of freedom of speech, detention without trial and preclusion of participation in a democratic state? Is there a way to justify support, or is simply the case of astounding, gob-smacking hypocrisy? 

That aside, could there possibly be a reason to spend the hundreds of thousands of Rand on this trip when South Africa is in such desperate need itself? Surely if one is to send a delegation of this nature around the world, they would travel to a place that could bring some investment or industry back home. Otherwise, what is the point? And the answer that Nelson Mandela travelled there in 1991 doesn’t cut it. 

The South African government has taught us that they cannot be trusted with money. Through their own deliberate behaviour they have shown very clearly that they are more worried about personal enrichment than the people they are elected to serve. A consequence of this is that until such time as this trust is rebuilt, we need to keep an eye on spending. 

We need to challenge and we need to ask questions that we have been too polite to ask. And if they are going to take advantage of us, at least bring us a cigar to chew on. 

-  Feldman is the author of Carry on Baggage and Tightrope and the daily breakfast show presenter on Chai FM.

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