From 15 to 22 September 2018, a parliamentary delegation led by the Speaker of the National Assembly will be in Havana, Cuba, to meet with the National Assembly of Cuba, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the more than 700 medical students from South Africa who are being trained as doctors in Cuba.
The visit to Cuba is possibly one of the most important parliamentary visits undertaken by the 5th Democratic Parliament because it recognises the role Cuba played in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, which culminated in the liberation of South Africa.
To the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Cuba is a very important political territory, one from which we draw inspiration and important lessons. It is also a political territory from which we learn dedication, steadfastness and revolutionary internationalism. The EFF’s founding manifesto says:
“The EFF is guided by revolutionary internationalism and solidarity that defined the politics of the July 26 Movement, which led the Cuban Revolutionary struggles. We will partake in international struggles that seek to emancipate the economically unliberated people of Africa and the world. We will form part of the progressive movements in the world that stand against continued imperialist domination.”
It is perhaps important that we take this opportunity to remind the people of South Africa that despite the many textual messages of support from other quarters, Cuba played an active and decisive role in the political liberation of South Africa. Cuba should be the most important country to South Africa for historical and present reasons and these notes will illustrate how and why.
The battle of Cuito Cuanavale
The battle of Cuito Cuanavale refers to the military confrontation between the apartheid South African Defence Force (SADF) and the Cuban military forces in the village of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987/88, (Adam, Heribert, and Kogila Moodley, 1993).
While less spoken about in South Africa’s transitional politics, this battle played a decisive role in pushing the apartheid regime to the negotiation table because the battle made them realise that the apartheid military was not unconquerable as they had thought.
Addressing the 20th anniversary to commemorate the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Ronnie Kasrils says:
“[W]hilst the generals and pundits of the former South African Defence Force (SADF) are at pains to claim victory the acid test is to consider the outcome. The SADF which had carried out continuous invasions and incursions into Angola since that country’s hard-won independence in 1975 (which was the reason for the Cuban military presence in the first place) had been forced to totally withdraw; the independence of Namibia was soon to be agreed; the prospect for South African freedom had never been more promising.” (Kasrils, 1998).
Discussing factors that precipitated the negotiated transition, Van Zyl Slabbert acknowledges the role of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which he generally refers to as the “war in Angola”. About this, he says:
“The South African regime engaged in this war (the war in Angola) with arrogant myopic vision and lack of insight. More than anything else it epitomised that which was part of the total strategy, namely, the waste of lives, time, energy, and resources. The escalating costs of the war, the unanticipated resistance of the Cubans, as well as the increasing unpopularity of the war at home speeded up its end.” (Lee & Schlemmer, 1991: 4).
The Cubans’ formidable military confrontation, strategy and offensive against the SADF resulted in the independence of Namibia. (Gleijeses, 2007)
It is important to note though that despite the intentions of the Cubans to sustain the military offensive until the liberation of South Africa, the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto WeSizwe were not necessarily involved in the real battle. This is noted because if the ANC and MK were in pursuit of an alternative route to South Africa’s liberation, the route of intensified military offensive aided by a formidable army and armaments from Cuba could have been buttressed by intensified mass protests in South Africa until the total capitulation of the apartheid regime. Attempts to find the ANC or MK’s involvement in the planning, intensification of Cuito Cuanavale at high level command return with nothing because they were not involved.
What can be recognised from these observations is that faced with growing unpopularity among white South Africans, in particular business that was bleeding billions and faced with a formidable military challenge in the form of the Cubans, the apartheid regime realised in more practical terms that negotiation was the only way out of its political conundrum. Due to these factors, without prioritising one over the other, negotiations were inevitable, because that was also the original view of the liberation forces.
Comandante Jorge Risquet, who was the Commander of the Cuban African Missions in Cuito Cuanavale, attributes the concessions by the apartheid regime and granting of Namibian independence to the post Cuito Cuanavale battle Quadripartite talks between Angola, Cuba, apartheid South Africa and the United States. (Hedelberto Lopez Blanch, 2008: 78)
He says these talks guaranteed the independence of Namibia and commitment by the apartheid regime to talk to the ANC for a negotiated settlement. (Hedelberto Lopez Blanch, 2008: 78)
It is quite evident from these developments that the ANC-led liberation forces were not in pursuit of an alternative solution to political transition, because even with formidable military aid and commitment from the Cubans, the liberation forces did not escalate this to a people’s war to seize political and economic power. Military seizure of political power was going to have its own consequences yet was not attempted as a way to take political power in South Africa, because the liberation forces needed a negotiated settlement.
There was obviously going to be tremendous difference between a transition that could have happened due to the military strength of the liberation movement and a transition that happened though negotiations because the contending forces could not defeat each other. The ANC’s pursuit of negotiations, even when there was possibility of military onslaught aided by the Cubans, led to the many capitulations that defined the negotiations and transition process.
One thing that should be categorically stated is that in 1988, Cuba, Angola and South Africa signed the New York Accords in terms of which Cuba withdrew its troops from Angola in exchange for South Africa granting independence to Namibia. What the accords does not say, but which is part of classified information, is that the South African apartheid government capitulated to a negotiated settlement as a basis for Cuba’s military withdrawal from southern Africa.
It should also be highlighted that the Cuban revolutionary forces under the leadership of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro had been on the African continent since the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by US Government-sponsored violence and destabilisation of the Congo. The Cuban forces were central to the defeat of colonial forces in Guinea Bissau of Amilcar Cabral, who was a protégé of el Comandante Fidel Castro, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and certainly South Africa.
It is also important to highlight that one of the outstanding soldiers and fighters in the quest for Africa’s decolonisation was Comandante Moya, who was deployed as a commander of the first battalion in the Congo. He’s a humble freedom fighter who, when we visited the site to commemorate African Freedom Fighters in Cuba, took us through the narrative.
Cuba and South Africa post 1994
When he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela’s first visit outside Africa as president was to Cuba. This was a way of showing gratitude for the relentless and decisive work of Cubans in the liberation of South Africa and the continent as a whole. In that visit, El Commandante Fidel Castro committed to immediate bilateral assistance of democratising South Africa and committed to help South Africa with the training of medical doctors.
The first intake of student doctors from South Africa was in 1998. Cuba has mastered the science of healthcare and that is illustrated in its infant mortality rates and life expectancy. Cuba has infant mortality rates that are far below the rates of economically developed nations and life expectancy is far ahead of many countries. Cuba has the world’s highest doctor to population ratio. There is one doctor for every 175 people in Cuba, while in South Africa it is one doctor for every 4,000 people.
South Africa has been given the opportunity to send on average of 1,000 medical students every year from poor and rural backgrounds to Cuba. These are students who would not be accepted to South African medical schools because of the exclusionary nature and form of medical training, including its exorbitant cost, in South Africa.
The Cuban medical training sphere produces the best holistic doctors, and yet in the recent past, South African medical fraternity and the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) have placed a mechanism that says all the Cuban-trained doctors should finish their studies in a South African medical school, despite the fact that there are no spaces available and the manner in which the concluding curriculum is presented is different.
More concerning is the fact that the difference does not in any way suggest that the South African medical curriculum is of superior quality, but because it’s based on different philosophical underpinnings. In fact, the corruption, maladministration and continued ignorance of the Minister of Health to deal with the deteriorating state of affairs at HPCSA brings into question such misguided decisions.
With the degeneration of South Africa’s healthcare, our country can, and should, massively derive maximum benefits from Cuba. South Africa should use its strategic relationship with Cuba to invest in the training of medical practitioners in Cuba. While quantitatively and qualitatively expanding South Africa’s capacity to train doctors, our government should maximally support the training of doctors and health practitioners in Cuba.
The EFF founding manifesto says:
“The South African government, at various levels, is already contributing to the education and training of medical doctors and other health professionals in Cuba. This should be radically expanded to a minimum of 10,000 students sent annually to various countries to attain skills, education and expertise on different but critical fields. The number of students sent to the best universities around the world should be reflective of South Africa’s demographics in terms of race, gender and class. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that the students sent to the best universities should have shown capacity to make progress because they should, indeed, make progress. These students will later contribute to the country’s socioeconomic development, economy and knowledge development.”
In its formative stage, the EFF had already recognised and appreciated the importance and vitality of leveraging on Cuba’s progressive internationalism. Training doctors is not just a numbers game, but a real act of humanity which changes the lives of all, including the poorest.
South Africa has since the Mandela/Castro accord on training of doctors sent more than 3,000 students to different universities in Cuba to be trained as Medical Doctors from the length and breadth of South Africa. Currently, there are 1951 students in different Medical Schools. Cuba has produced 657 Doctors for South Africa and 712 Doctors are doing their final year in different Medical Schools in South Africa.
What this means is that within the next year, South Africa will have not less than 1,500 doctors educated in Cuba and when considering the number of Cuban doctors in South Africa, the number is almost 2,000. To be gifted with more close to 2,000 Medical Doctors is one of the most decisive acts of revolutionary solidarity South Africa has ever gained from any of the countries all over the world. There’s not even a single country or nation state in the whole world which can claim to have made such a substantial contribution to the wellbeing of South Africa.
Despite their promises of economic prosperity, the Western capitalist World has abused the gullibility of the post 1994 Governments and forced it to adopt neoliberal policies, which resulted in capital flight due to liberal exchange controls and employment terminative tariff reduction in a manner that has trapped South Africa in perennial and crisis levels of unemployment. Without imposing its will on South Africa and without expecting anything in return, Cuba has been a true revolutionary friend of the people of South Africa in immeasurable ways.
SA/Cuba defence partnership
The other strategic partnership between South Africa and Cuba has been the defence partnership wherein South Africa is expected to send 120 officers and cadets for training in Cuba, more especially on areas of patriotism and work ethic. Additionally, South Africans are given mechanical engineering training and the Cubans send some of their engineers to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The Defence attaché in Cuba illustrated during the briefing that part of the benefits for South Africa is that some of the fighter vehicles that the army was about to dispose of with just 30,000 kilometres on the clock were revived by the Cubans, who instructively indicated that these vehicles have a lifespan of up to 500,000 kilometres. Despite the agreements, SANDF has not been sending the allocated number, and in many instances sent poorly prepared officers and cadets.
Now, all of these positive developments from and courageous actions of the Cuban people happen against an economic blockage and sanctions from the United States and consequently most parts of the economic world. The US has since 1960 imposed sanctions against Cuba, restricting its trade and economic relations with many countries all over the world. The humanitarian impacts of the blockade have been documented, and it is on record that in 2017 only, Cuba lost US$4-billion (R60-billion) worth of trade due to US economic blockade and sanctions.
The basis of the US sanctions and economic blockade on Cuba are senseless ideological constructs of successive neoliberal governments in the US, whose nearest port for entry from Cuba is less than 400 kilometres away. Former President Barack Obama attempted to lessen the trade embargo, and when madness assumed the office of president in the US through the election of Donald Trump, the economic blockade, trade embargoes and sanctions were reinstated.
The trade embargo, economic blockades and sanctions bring tremendous difficulty to Cuba’s economy, which lead to perennial shortage of machinery and other products that cannot be produced in Cuba. The economic blockade also causes strain to the country’s financial system, which cannot be seamlessly integrated into the otherwise complex global financial architecture, which relies on the US dollar for global monetary exchanges.
Despite all these, the people of Cuba and its leadership are resilient and steadfast in maintaining a socialist path to human development because socialism represents the most superior manifestation of humanity. The progressive peoples of the world have recurrently called for an end to the trade embargo and the United Nations passed several resolutions calling for an end to the trade embargo and sanctions. The resistance always comes from the US and Israel, who for senseless ideological reasons continue to isolate Cuba.
Cuba continues to be one of the most lucrative holiday destinations in the world with recorded five million visitors in the past year. Many governments visit Cuba to learn about its healthcare and education systems, which are universal and free to all its citizens.
Cuba is currently undergoing constitutional reforms which will allow for same-sex marriages, institutionalise presidential term limits, decentralise political power to provinces, and extend the scope for ownership of personal non-exploitative property. When we met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they assured us and all the progressive forces of the world that the constitutional reforms under way will never sacrifice the socialist reconstruction of society that begun with the victory of the July 26 Movement.
Amidst all of these, we as the people who gained independence from the racist colonial and apartheid oppression owe our revolutionary progressive internationalism and solidarity to the people of Cuba. Our solidarity with the people of Cuba therefore becomes a human and revolutionary obligation. The Cubans sacrificed their lives so that we can gain freedom from the nonsensical colonial, apartheid oppression and repression.
Despite the rhetorical commitments to solidarity with the people of Cuba, there are practical interventions which the South African government, overseen by Parliament, should engage in for the benefit of the people of Cuba and South Africa.
The immediate intervention should be upgrading of the South African embassy in Cuba to a Grade 5. Perhaps Parliament should even pass a special resolution or motion to place Cuba in a special category of embassies, for historical and present reasons. There is no other country in the world that has committed to produce medical doctors for South Africa and transfer critical skills in the manner in which Cuba is doing despite trade and economic sanctions.
The South African government should scale up the many bilateral relationships established with Cuba since 1994 and should dedicate resources to harnessing and enhancing such relationships. South Africa’s resource commitment to Cuba’s medical training fraternity and the pharmaceutical sphere will be one of the greatest contributions to humanity.
The Health and Defence attaches in Cuba should be appropriately resourced and capable and skilled guardians should be deployed to look after all the students and cadets in different Cuban training institutions on a ratio of one guardian per 10 students. Those deployed to Cuba should carry the necessary political consciousness that Cuba is a country under economic sanctions and will lack some of the luxuries associated with the many meaningless foreign missions South Africa finances.
Cuba’s dedication to saving lives deserves honour, not through rhetorical commitments, but through resource allocation and oversight on how such resources bring about maximum benefit to the people of Cuba and South Africa. When they conquered Batista, the revolutionary July 26 Movement proclaimed “Hasta La Victoria Siempre”, May Cuba’s Victories Last Forever! Viva Cuba! Viva Socialist reconstruction of society. DM
"Don't shove me into your damn pigeonhole where I don't fit because I'm all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions." ~ Ursula K Le Guin