I have always felt a deep sense of envy about the Sixties. As if all monumental things happened and ended in the Sixties and there can be no better time to have been alive than then, especially for a high-minded person like myself.
Whether it was the Kennedy brothers taking the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X charging the walls of the continental United States, the young Patrice Lumumba, a symbol of African unity and solidarity, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the west African liberation movement for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, intellectual, poet, theoretician, revolutionary, political organiser, nationalist and diplomat, Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Moroccan opposition, the first Moroccan Muslim to get a degree in mathematics, Eduardo Mondlane, leader of Mozambique’s Frelimo, a man who laid down his life for the truth that man was made for dignity and self-determination, Thomas Sankara, young and full of courage to turn his back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future, Oliver Tambo, a man about town prowling corridors of world power, selling a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity, Che Guavara and Fidel Castro, young, intelligent, very sure of themselves and extraordinarily audacious; young men, fully aware that the burden on themselves was greater than any other given to a generation.
The loss 50 years ago of most of this group of leaders, who all knew each other, and had a common political project based on national dignity, crippled each of their countries. The effects are still evident today.
Those who worked with John Fitzgerald Kennedy speak of many times Kennedy would watch Che Guevara from a distance, with admiration and envy, seeing a lot of himself in him, both young, both charismatic, loved by women, always the centre of attention in any room, with the revolutionary passion of seeking a new world order. They were both similar, even in ideology they seemed to find each other more often than not. It is Robert Kennedy who would say, speaking at the University of Cape Town in 1966, “… there are those in every land who would label as Communist every threat to their privilege”.
On Monday evening, November 18, 1963, at the Americana Hotel in Miami Beach — four days before JFK’s assassination – Kennedy instructed his delegate to the United Nations to secretly call Castro’s aide and physician, Rene Vallejo, to discuss a possible secret meeting in Havana between Ambassador William Attwood and Castro that might improve the Cuban-American relationship, which had been ruptured when President Dwight Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties in January 1961. Kennedy wanted to know more about what was on Castro’s mind. Unfortunately JFK had to make that trip to Texas from which he never came back. Kennedy was fully aware that there wasn’t much separating the thinking of young people at that time; they all represented this palpable new thing, a world without war, acknowledging what an international community we had become.
It is the Kennedy brothers who first challenged the futility that there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence. It is this belief, that one man should never underestimate his ability to change the world, that drove Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Félix-Roland Moumié of Cameroon, Sylvanus Olympio of Togo and many others. Many of the world’s greatest movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single man.
The first thing that was clear from the Sixties was that this world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It was an understanding that it is a young monk who began the Protestant Reformation, it is a young general who extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman who reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.
Second, whether it was the United States, Latin America, or Africa, each continent and country had a similar story. These young leaders inherited their countries divided into two. There was a “white” country and a “black” one; one rich and predominantly white and the other poor and predominantly black.
The world could not be guided by one set of thinking alone. Che, Castro, Kennedy, Tambo, Lumumba, in all their glory and thinking, gave the world a leap forward and could have done even better had they reached out to one another the way they secretly wanted to. Each of these leaders may have at times felt very alone with their countries’ problems and difficulties. But what is true is that we are all in many ways more closely united to the brothers of our time than to the older generations of any of other nations; and that we must be determined to build a better future.
President Zuma is correct to say, “We must endeavour to take forward the ideals that Castro espoused – internationalism, freedom, equality, justice and a better and more just world.” Ironically, it is this internationalism and fight for justice that Robert Kennedy espoused when he said, “I think that we could agree on what kind of a world we would all want to build. It would be a world of independent nations, moving toward international community, each of which protected and respected the basic human freedoms. It would be a world which demanded of each government that it accept its responsibility to ensure social justice. It would be a world of constantly accelerating economic progress – not material welfare as an end in itself, but as a means to liberate the capacity of every human being to pursue his talents and to pursue his hopes. It would, in short, be a world that we would be proud to have built.
And so when the Democratic Alliance decided to walk out of Parliament when it was time to honour Castro, their ignorance and political shallowness betrayed them. It is the ignorance that can accept Mandela and reject Castro, welcome Kennedy but reject Guevara, it is a shallowness that Obama rejected when he accepted his Nobel Prize, the idea that it is only one thinking that shaped our world.
Even at the height of the antagonism between the United States and Cuba in 1961, two weeks after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro would be heard saying, “We do not endanger the security of a single North American. We do not endanger the life or security of a single North American family. We are making co-operatives, agrarian reform, people’s ranches, houses, schools, literacy campaigns, and sending thousands and thousands of teachers to the interior, building hospitals, sending doctors, giving scholarships, building factories, increasing the productive capacity of our country, creating public beaches, converting fortresses into schools, and giving the people the right to a better future – we do not endanger a single US family or a single US citizen’.
Fidel Castro deserves his honour here on God’s Earth as a man who did all he could to develop his own people and forge relations with all those who would extend a hand of friendship. DM