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Cuba's selfless contribution to African liberation driven by a genuine and passionate humanism
, 3/30/01, President Thabo Mbeki

Southern Africa

Cuba and South Africa

Most Americans are unaware that Cuba's intervention was decisive in Angola, as in the battle for Cuito Cuanavale, when they and their MPLA allies defeated South African forces in open battle. This led the White Regime to back off from Angola and ultimately Namibia and South Africa. That is why the current South African government is so grateful to Cuba.

Cuba's selfless contribution to African liberation driven by a genuine and passionate humanism, 3/30/01

Letter from President Thabo Mbeki
Volume 1 No 10:  30 March - 5 April 2001 

This week, at the invitation of President Fidel Castro Ruz, we led a South African government delegation on a long-outstanding state visit to Cuba. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen the existing relations between our two countries. This related to a number of areas. These include the areas of education, health, science and technology, agriculture and sport. We will say something about these matters a little later.

With a population of 11 million, Cuba is a much smaller country than South Africa. This is also true of the size of its landmass. It would not need any statistical information to show any visiting South African that the country also has a much smaller economy than ours and is at a lower level of economic development. Yet the visit reminded all of us of the big heart of the Cuban people and how much we had benefited from this fact.

The visit also confirmed the strength of the continuing commitment of the Cubans to assist us to the extent they can in helping us to meet our challenges as a growing democratic country. Even as the memory was beginning to fade, our stay in Cuba could not but remind all of us of the great contribution that the country made to the struggle for freedom and peace in our region of Southern Africa.

As we conversed with our hosts, we recollected the period in our region which ended just over a decade ago, which saw the involvement of apartheid South Africa in a massive and concerted effort to impose its will on the region and thus extend the life of the apartheid crime against humanity. Cuba's contribution to the defeat of that campaign of aggression and destabilisation against independent Africa was, of course, particularly exemplified by its decisive involvement in the military struggle to defeat the apartheid forces that had invaded Angola soon after that country's independence from Portugal.

The Cuban forces were to stay in Angola for over a decade. That stay ended only when, after their defeat at Cuito Cuanavale, the apartheid invaders understood that they would never be able to realise their objectives and that the Angolan people should have the freedom to determine their future. With that realisation came the understanding in Pretoria that it could not dictate to the independent African states through the use of force. Neither could it hold back the tide leading to the independence of Namibia and the liberation of South Africa.

Our delegation laid a wreath at the Veterans Pantheon in Havana, which contains the bodies of the heroes and heroines of the Cuban people, including those who died in the war of independence from Spain in the 19th century as well as the war in Angola for the liberation of the peoples of Africa. As we carried out this solemn act and walked around the pantheon, we could not but gain a fresh appreciation of how much this small island of Cuba had been a major contributor to our own freedom, without asking that we do anything in return.

As we listened to old soldiers at this monumental cemetery, we could not fail to see that here we had people who were genuinely committed to the cause of Africa's people, who felt great friendship for our own people and were prepared to make sacrifices in our interest. Therefore we understood well what they meant when they said that it was their commitment to internationalism and solidarity that had made it possible for them to decide that they were willing to die if necessary, so that we should be free.

That understanding was further enhanced at the African Memorial Park in Miramar, Havana, where, together with President Castro, we unveiled a bust of Oliver Tambo, after which the ANC Secretary General, Kgalema Motlanthe, addressed us all. The first bust to be unveiled at this park in honour of the peoples of Africa is that of the late, first President of Angola, Agostinho Neto. Oliver Tambo's is the second. We were informed that others that will be placed at the park include those of Abdel Gamal Nasser of Egypt, Modibo Keita of Mali, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel of Mozambique.

It felt strange and embarrassing that, seven years after our own liberation, we, an African country, did not have a single memorial to pay tribute to these and other outstanding African patriots. This feeling was also strengthened by our visit to the specially prepared grave of the outstanding South African writer, Alex La Guma, who had served as the Chief Representative of the ANC in Havana. Our interpreter informed us that one of his set works at University in Cuba had been La Guma's novel, 'The Stone Country', even as the book was banned in his own country of birth.

Needless to say, we did not visit Cuba to recall the past. Nevertheless that past of deeply felt friendship and solidarity with our people and country helps to explain the great willingness of the people of that country to help us in our struggle to eradicate the apartheid legacy and achieve the objective of a better life for all.

On many occasions, the citizens of this island state, including scientists and other professionals, such as teachers, openly expressed their willingness to come to South Africa to work with us to realise our goals. Even children spoke of their intention to become teachers and doctors so that they could carry out their international duties. It is because of this strong and prevalent spirit of Cuba that, today, we have 463 Cuban doctors working in our public hospitals, especially those in rural areas. Forty-seven of these are lecturers and would therefore be able to assist both in our medical schools and our teaching hospitals.

Accordingly, if we speak today of making progress towards the goal of honouring the fundamental human right to health for all, we say so because, in good measure, we have these significant numbers of Cuban health workers who volunteered to come and work even in areas where some of our own professionals might be reluctant to go. To help increase our own capacity in this area, Cuba has granted scholarships to 185 of our young people who are currently studying in Cuba to become medical doctors.

Cuba also has done and is doing important work in research into and the development of drugs and medicines. Because of her commitment to help us radically to improve the health of our people, she has offered to waive her intellectual property rights over these health products as well as cooperate with us in their production, so that we can provide affordable medicaments to the poor people of our country. In addition to this, Cuba has agreed to work with us in the important scientific area of biotechnology to increase our research capacity in this area.

She has also agreed to share with us the important work she has done in the area of animal and plant health and productivity, so that we are better able to address the question of better nutrition and therefore better health for our people. Immediately, she is ready to send some tens of veterinary scientists to help us further improve the health of our animal stock, including in the former homeland areas. This is especially timely in the light of the recent outbreak of various animal diseases globally, including mad-cow, foot-and-mouth and anthrax diseases.

Recognising the importance of sport and recreation to the health and general well being especially of our youth, Cuba is also working with us to increase our capacity in this area. Already, we have three of our people studying sport in Cuba, assisted by the Sports Scholarships given to them by Cuba. We have also reached agreement with the Cuban Government that Cuba will assist us to develop our own sports academies so that we have larger numbers of properly qualified sports instructors and better access by our youth to modern instruction in this field. We are also of the same mind with the Cubans, that we should both do everything possible to facilitate access by other African sportspeople to these facilities once they exist.

As is clear from this report, Cuba is also in agreement with us about the critical importance of human resource development. In part, this derives from her own reality and experience of development. Among other things, the country is not as well endowed with natural resources as we are, and, has had to depend greatly on the skill of her own people to achieve the outstanding results she has with regard to such areas as health and education.

Once more, driven by the firm internationalist commitment to help us succeed, the Cuban leadership engaged us in intense discussions about measures we could take together to raise the level of education of our people and to improve the quality of that education. Accordingly, we will be receiving Cuban teachers in mathematics and science to help us in our schools. These will be followed by teacher trainers in these subjects, once again to build up our own domestic capacity to improve the performance of our student youth in these critical areas. We will also work together to draw on Cuba's experience with regard to the use of radio and television in the field of education, including the area of basic literacy.

These are some of the agreements we concluded during our visit to Cuba this week. Together they constitute the clearest demonstration of that country's resolve to help us accelerate progress towards the attainment of the objective of a better life for all, by intensifying the struggle for freedom from hunger, ignorance and disease. They demonstrate the fact that when the Cuban people helped us to defeat the apartheid monster, they did so as friends for all seasons, and not as fair weather partners.

Our engagement with Cuba and their preparedness to increase the number of doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals to assist not only South Africa but the rest of the African continent to face the challenges of development, is informed by a desire from all of us, to strengthen South-South relations. Whiles Africans are involved in the important work of finalising the elaboration of the practical elements of the vision of the African Renaissance, Cuban doctors, teachers and other professionals, are already involved in a number of African countries giving practical meaning to our shared objectives of the reawakening of the continent.

Cuba, an island in the Caribbean, is host to 96 diplomatic missions representing countries from all parts of the globe as well as international organisations, such as the UN Special Agencies. As we left Cuba, we had come to understand that the Cuban people are driven by a genuine and passionate humanism. They are proud of their rich and long history of struggle to attain their own freedom and social progress.

They do not hesitate to share what they have with those who are in want. They wish to be part of a world of freedom, peace, prosperity and friendship among the peoples, and are determined to make their contribution to the achievement of these goals. To some extent, that helped to explain why so many countries have representatives in Havana, if only to gain a better understanding of a friendly Caribbean people.



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