Men of history: Former president Nelson Mandela hugs Cuban President Fidel Castro during a visit to Johannesburg in 2001. Picture: REUTERS
Men of history: Former president Nelson Mandela hugs Cuban President Fidel Castro during a visit to Johannesburg in 2001. Picture: REUTERS

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who died last week, divides even more intensely SA’s existing cleavages. Everything depends on where you stand. To many, perhaps most, black South Africans he constitutes an unadulterated hero.

He certainly was that to SA’s own hero, Nelson Mandela.

To leftists in the southern hemisphere, the Cuban revolution in 1959 was an inspiration. Mandela was so inspired he began the task of building a guerrilla army in SA only two years later.

The commonalities seemed obvious. Cuba constituted a glorious example of victory against imperialism of the "West" in an era of Cold War rivalry that overflowed in ungainly examples of atrocities into proxy wars in the countries of the "Third World". Castro, for his part, repaid the compliment, opposing apartheid with venom — so much so that Cuba was one of the first countries that Mandela visited after his release. He called Castro’s revolution "a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people".

The other crucial reason for South African support for Cuba was the events in Angola in 1987-88 around the battle of Cuito Cuanavale — the largest battle on African soil since the Second World War. At the start, the offensive, called Operation Greeting October, was run largely by Soviet officers in charge of Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (Fapla) forces. It was aimed at pushing back National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita) forces. The offensive was brutally and decisively countered by South African Defence Force (SADF) and Unita troops — so much so that the Soviet advisers were withdrawn. Following a desperate call for assistance by Fapla leaders, Castro poured troops and equipment into the defence of Cuito Cuanavale.

After several brutal skirmishes, the SADF advance came to a shuddering halt, and even though the losses were hugely weighted against the Angolans and Cubans, of whom perhaps 10,000 died, the small bombed-out town became the place where the military ambitions of the apartheid government died. Shortly afterwards, SA effectively abandoned Unita and acceded to the independence of Namibia, for the small price of the withdrawal of Cuban forces. The Cubans effectively secured the independence of Namibia and made the position of the apartheid government even more tenuous, resulting in South African democratic negotiations a few years later.

Hence Cuba, and Castro particularly, have won a place in the hearts of freedom lovers elsewhere in Africa and SA that cannot be gainsaid. But the gratitude obscures Castro’s human rights abuses that should be obvious even to the most prejudiced view. Much is made of Castro’s brave, equal society and the gains it has made in healthcare and education. But the gains were made against the background of brutal repression. Ironically, that extended to the Cuban general, Arnaldo Ochoa, who originally oversaw the battle and who was executed by firing squad after being found guilty of treason.

Statistics about Cuba’s economy are hotly disputed, with the country itself claiming a high human development index, much higher than most Latin American nations, and low poverty levels. But the truism that socialist countries are equal but that they distribute poverty equally is powerfully apposite in Cuba, where all workers earn about 400 nonconvertible Cuban pesos (about $30) a month.

In other words, Cubans earn about one eighth of SA’s proposed minimum wage, which explains why so many of SA’s imported Cuban doctors decided to stay.

To South Africans, Castro is essentially a mirage — a promise of great relief to people in desperate need but a distant dream nevertheless.

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