Cuba and the South African anti-apartheid struggle

Twenty years ago, Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, South Africa, on February 11, 1990. That historic victory was the product of the long and courageous struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa. It was also a victory for the international movement against apartheid. Revolutionary Cuba played a vital role in the international movement against white minority rule in South Africa, as the following article describes. (See also "Cuito Cuanavale: How Cuba fought for Africa’s freedom".)

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By Nicole Sarmiento

January 21, 2010 -- Pambazuka News -- Cuba's relations with African liberation movements began as early as the 1960s, and shortly after the triumph of the struggle against the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Members of the Cuban leadership travelled to Algiers to build formal relations with the Algerian National Liberation Front (Gleijeses, 1996a). Che Guevara's trip around the African continent in 1963 was a significant turning point in strengthening Cuba's relationship with liberation movements around the continent.

In interviews with former commanders of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) [the armed wing of the South African liberation movement] and senior members of the MK Military Veterans Association, a number of the senior MK leadership met with Guevara in Algiers that year to discuss strengthening relations, the nature of the armed struggle and a number of other questions related to the role of liberation movements on the continent.[1] The relationship began at the political level and occurred in the space of international institutions, but it extended as well to clandestine meetings (such as those of Guevara in Algeria and Tanzania in 1963) and the beginning of direct assistance to liberation movements.[2]

In 1961 at the first Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade, then president of Cuba Osvaldo Dorticó's Torrado, condemned the apartheid government of South Africa and its policies.[3] Cuban officials began to speak out against the apartheid government and its internal policies at international conferences, summits, meetings and assemblies, repeatedly calling for resolutions and definitive decisions on the elimination of the policy of apartheid in South Africa.[4]

A number of central leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle have mentioned the weight of Cuban assistance to South Africa's road to end white minority rule -- from Nelson Mandela and [the South African Communist Party's] Chris Hani, to cultural leaders such as Wally Serote and James Matthews. However, little academic work has been done on actually uncovering the nature of those relations. In the following article, I will try to outline the general character of those relations based on recently conducted research. I look at the policy carried out by the Cuban regime and civil society towards South Africa's struggle to end apartheid. However, it is necessary to contextualise relations with South Africa during this period as intimately tied to Cuba's overall policy in Africa and assistance to the anti-colonial struggle.

Cuba in southern Africa

A significant aspect of Cuba's foreign policy was voicing its strong stance against the apartheid regime at international fora. Cuba's support for UN Resolution 435, as well as its direct support to Angola's struggle to defend its independence from apartheid military incursions, forms the centrepiece of Cuban policy towards southern African liberation movements. Cuba's role in Angola was central to its policy towards the South African liberation movements, as it provided a territorial base of support to the movement in exile and the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

Angola was also a place where MK and South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) soldiers received military training, education and other skills from Cuban military instructors.[5] Alfred Nzo, then general secretary of the ANC, read a message in 1975 that reiterated oppressed South Africans' support for Cuba's assistance in Angola fighting alongside Angolan, MK and SWAPO troops against the South African military invasion. He noted that Cuba's assistance to the Angolans was "invaluable help for crushing South Africa's evil racist and imperialist aggression".[6]

At the first congress of the Cuban Communist Party, Jorge Risquet Valdés stated that Cuba's assistance to and presence in Angola from 1975 was opening up the possibility of extending Cuba's assistance to the South African resistance.[7] In 1977 the Novo Katengue training centre for MK combatants was established.

Interviews with members of the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) leaderships, as well as former senior members of MK, point to the Cuban role in the southern African region as fundamental to understanding Cuba's role in assisting the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. These respondents make the assessment that the role of Cuba in Angola was central to speeding up the end of apartheid in South Africa and the independence of Namibia, and facilitated assistance to the South African liberation movements.

It is difficult to separate the dynamics of the struggle within South Africa as well as the development of liberation movements without taking into account the political and military developments in the southern African region. Angola laid the platform for strengthening direct engagement at the military and political level between Cuba and the liberation movements from South Africa. Cuba's support for revolutionary change in the Americas and Africa reached a high point in Angola in 1988.[8] Before 1975 around 2000 Cuban soldiers and aid workers had gone to Africa. By 1988 the figures reached more than 450,000.[9]

Despite the assumption of Cuba acting as a Cold War proxy, recent scholarly work on Cuba's role in Angola illustrates that the Cuban leadership has consistently acted autonomously in its foreign policy. Although much has been written on this period of the southern African history, very little has been written on Cuban involvement in South Africa, and much less from the perspective of participants.[10] Most accounts mention Cuba's involvement as a rental army of the Soviet Union, as a subservient player to the Cold War rivalry, as a rogue affair guided by the personality of one individual, or mention the Cuban role in passing. The few scholars who take Cuban foreign policy as a serious area of study, avoiding the pitfalls of repeating simplistic and cynical characterisations of Cuban foreign policy, remain the following: Gleijeses (2003, 2006, 2009), Saney (2006, 2009), Dosman (2008) and Lopez Blanch (2008). These accounts consistently reveal autonomy of foreign policy and formulation of aims and motives based on autochthonous experiences and aims.

Cuba's policy towards South Africa

Encountering scholarly work, interviews and primary documents on Cuba's collaboration with the anti-apartheid struggle is difficult. An explanation is provided by Lopez Blanch (2008): "Most contacts, visits and exchanges were extremely secretive to protect South African revolutionaries who were persecuted by the regime." Even the SACP seventh congress in 1989, the last one to be held outside South Africa, was prepared, held and had delegates flown to Cuba in strict secrecy. The congress was unknown to the president of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he visited Cuba only three days before the congress was held.[11] The process of declassification of official documents is not complete in Cuba or in South Africa and thus further research, time and resources would need to be dedicated to unearthing some of the more specific questions pertaining to these relations.

Nonetheless, the data gained from the various qualitative interviews carried out in the process of this research point to extensive relations between Cuba and the ANC, SACP and trade union leadership, and particularly with MK as well as in terms of the development of internal discussions within the ANC and SACP on central political questions. The training of female cadres within the liberation struggle via the Federation of Cuban Women, as well as using Cuba as a platform for the South African liberation movement to exchange with other liberation movements from around the world was also part of the relations between the Cuban state and civil society and the South African liberation movements.

A senior ANC/SACP leader recalls: "Our secretary general Nzo went to the first conference in Cuba -- the Tri-continental -- in the '60s. From then onwards a link was established, a formal political link, both with the SACP and the ANC."[12].The expansion of relations in the 1970s included military cooperation and training to MK, political relations between both the Cuban state and liberation movements, educational and medical cooperation.

ANC mission in Havana and relations with MK

Nelson Mandela's speech at Matanzas, Cuba, in 1991 speaks about the founding of the armed wing of the ANC and the launch of the armed resistance to apartheid. MK was launched on December 16, 1961, and the manifesto of MK was made public via an illegal radio broadcast given by Walter Sisulu. Mandela speaks of the earliest contact with Cubans:

I must say that when we wanted to take up arms we approached numerous Western governments for assistance and we were never able to see any but the most junior ministers. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest officials and were immediately offered whatever we wanted and needed. That was our earliest experience with Cuban internationalism (Mandela, 1991:22).

The official ANC Cuba mission was set up in Havana in 1978 with Alex la Guma as the central representative. La Guma was also a well-known novelist and poet, and was the head of the ANC mission in Cuba until his death in 1988. The ANC mission was paid for by the Cuban government, and was the centre of anti-apartheid political activity in the Caribbean. On the level of military cooperation, Joe Slovo and Joe Modise were the individuals responsible at the highest levels of coordinating all military cooperation between Cuba and the South African liberation movements. Relations on the level of military training began in the 1970s with the increased Cuban involvement in Angola; however, according to the respondents, political discussions took place on numerous occasions between the Cubans and the ANC, SACP and MK leadership in terms of the nature of the armed struggle.

Much of Cuba's contact with the anti-apartheid alliance took place in different parts of southern Africa, and meetings occurred between the Cuban leadership and the ANC and SACP leaderships in Lusaka, Conakry, Harare and other cities in the region. From 1976 until 1988 almost all MK training took place in Angola by Cubans and Soviets, mainly in the Novo Katengue camp. The most significant MK and SWAPO training camp on the African continent at the time was Novo Katengue. According to Ronnie Kasrils (2009:3): "We had a major camp, which had about 500 people training there at any one time, a year at a time, called Novo Katengue ... It was our most advanced camp. And that is where the Cubans immediately came in and provided the infrastructure.'[13]

A political lull took place within South Africa around 1963 until the late 1960s, during which most of the anti-apartheid organisations were forced to go underground and few young recruits were joining MK. The events in Angola in 1975 and the Soweto uprising in 1976 changed this domestic dynamic: a wave of recruits began to join the liberation movement and particularly MK[14]. The Cubans were central in setting up a camp to train these young cadres as well as providing more advanced military training to cadres who had already excelled in the basic courses. The Novo Katengue camp was established for basic military, guerrilla-style training, and then a specialised course was organised for those who graduated the main course. This was carried out by the Cubans in the urban area of Benguele. Kasrils (2009) describes the type of training specialisations: "how to engage in urban guerrilla warfare, use of disguises, special rendezvous arrangements, burying of weaponry...". The camp was bombed by the South Africans in 1979.[15] The cadres in the camp were moved to several other camps around Angola, and the Cuban training and assistance decreased, due to the agreement of gradual Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola, which began around 1977.

However, the assistance between Cuba and MK, along with relations with the anti-apartheid alliance, continued throughout this period into the 1990s. The Angolans also had asked some Cuban forces to stay, given the South African Defence Force arming of [Angolan contras of] UNITA and the SADF's presence in Namibia represented a major threat to Angola sovereignty. An increase in Cuban assistance began in 1985, sending larger numbers of MK troops from Luanda to Havana for training. Kasrils (2009) describes how following discussions between Cubans and senior ANC, SACP and MK interlocutors, a specialised training regime was set up inside Cuba, which would receive South Africans in small groups.[16] From 1986-1989, much more specialised training of underground cells and smuggling of weapons, among other training was occurring in Cuba. After 1988 ANC/MK instructors took over the training, as Cuba had then begun its withdrawal from Angola following the New York Accords on December 11, 1988.

On October 29, 1989, a mass rally of 80,000 people was held in Soweto and Walter Sisulu gave the main speech, with a call to maintain the armed struggle. From 1988 through the early 1990s, a number of discussions with the anti-apartheid alliance leadership took place in Havana and in the Cuban embassy in Lusaka, involving discussions of continuing military training and assistance to MK as well as the sending of equipment and armaments. Joe Slovo visited the Cuban embassy in Lusaka, Zambia in 1989, and made a request for special armaments. Lopez Blanch (2008) writes of a meeting between Chris Hani, Timothy Makwena and other high level MK leaders at the Cuban embassy in Lusaka, in May 1990, to discuss the training of officers for the post-liberation South African National Defence Force. Secret meetings between Cubans and ANC and SACP leadership took place in Lusaka and Harare in June 1987. Cuban documents from July 1990 detail that armaments were delivered to the ANC/MK in 1987, 1988 and 1989. The report also states that 403 MK combatants had received special training by Cubans at the time.

In May 1990 in Lusaka, there was a meeting between Cubans and Chris Hani: "Hani stated that Cuba meant a lot to the ANC and to South Africa, and that it was one of the few friends that the ANC had at the moment, which is why it looked to Cuba, not only because of its high degree of technical and combative specialisation, but because of the ideological role that would be played by the personnel trained on the island" (Lopez Blanch, 2008). Much remains to be learned on the side of military cooperation between Cuba and the liberation movement in South Africa, and for this more interviews would have to be carried out, as well as the declassification of official documents in South African and Cuban archives.

Women, education and civil society

Cuban relations with the anti-apartheid alliance existed on multiple levels. Students from South Africa studied in Cuba, and young MK cadres who had little basic education were sent to Cuba to upgrade their levels of education and prepare for a future democratic state. Political education also took place for leaders within the women's section of the ANC, organised by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC).

Education agreements were made between Cuba and the ANC and the SACP, providing education to South Africans with all expenses paid by the Cuban state. In 1976 the first South African student arrived in Havana, and in 1977 the first group of South African students arrived in the Isle of Pines, which later was to be called the Isle of Youth.[17] Twenty-three students from South Africa came in 1986 and 107 in 1988. Alfred Nzo and Oliver Tambo had planned to send a large contingent of South Africans to receive education in Cuba. This eventually did not happen due to the wave of political activity in South Africa that began in 1988, the events in Cuito Cuanavale and subsequently the decriminalisation of liberation organisations. By 2005, 272 South African students had graduated from Cuban universities and technical schools (115 from university and 157 at technical schools). As of 2005, more than 400 South African young people were studying for free in Cuba. According to Thenjiwe Mtintso, former South African ambassador to Cuba, "out of every 20 South Africans who studied in Cuba, 15 today practice their specialties in the public sector".[18]

The FMC began its assistance to women involved in national liberation struggles from all over the Third World. In February 1975, the FMC opened the Fé del Valle School for women, which provided a wide variety of education and training over a 10-month period, with all expenses paid by the FMC. Thenjiwe Mtintso, who was a senior MK commander and member of the SACP central committee, was one of the women educated in Cuba who spent time training at the Fé del Valle School. The education program that the FMC had begun was principally in political, cultural and ideological training (Lopez Blanch, 2008). By 1976 there were around 300 women in the program from different countries.

At the level of civil society, Cubans were involved in elevating the status of the anti-apartheid struggle to the level of popular consciousness. In May 1981, Cuba had helped organise an international anti-apartheid conference in Paris. Cuba participated in June 1981 at the International Conference on Sanctions against South Africa -- and pushed for a more hardline stand against apartheid than the one which had been drafted by the Western European states and the US.[19] In 1986, Cuba began its own anti-apartheid committee that would work with anti-apartheid committees all over the world on numerous issues. It became known as the Cuban Anti-Apartheid Committee.

Cuba awarded leaders of the South African resistance with numerous awards, from Nelson Mandela to Oliver Tambo, and cultural icons such as Miriam Makeba and Alex la Guma. Anti-apartheid protests were organised in Havana, and the Organisation of Solidarity with the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL) popularised protest art that highlighted the struggle against apartheid and the war in Vietnam.

The 1989 SACP congress and a new era of relations

Numerous important visits, with messages between Cubans and the South African resistance, also took place throughout the 1960s and 1970s, intensifying after 1975.[20] In 1990 John Nkadimeng, then general secretary of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and a member of the national executive committee of the ANC, as well as member of the SACP, visited Cuba. During the trip he had extensive meetings with Cuba's state-affiliated trade unions. Nkadimeng became South Africa's first ambassador to Cuba following the end of apartheid in 1994, which was the first new embassy established after democratic elections in 1994[21]. Nkadimeng (2009) and Gonzalez Gonzalez (2009) described the close relations between the Cuban Workers' Federation (CTC) and the militant South African trade unions part of the anti-apartheid alliance. Numerous meetings were held in Cuba between the CTC and SACTU, and then later with COSATU[22].

The seventh congress of the South African Communist Party, the last to be held outside of South Africa, took place in Cuba in 1989. Several leaders of the anti-apartheid alliance attended and the meeting was guarded with complete secrecy due to the difficult moment in which it was taking place and the underground existence of the SACP and liberation movements. John Nkadimeng (2009) states, "It was very important because it was a mark of respect and recognition of socialist Cuba. The role they played."[23]

Following the decriminalisation of political organisations in 1990, the first Cuban meeting with Mandela took place at the independence celebration in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1990, and then Mandela's July 23-26, 1991, visit to Cuba, in which he spoke to a mass rally at Matanzas. The rally celebrated the 38th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks, which marked the beginning of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. Cuba was Mandela's first country to visit outside of Africa since his release from prison, and it was a significant show of solidarity. After the ANC triumph in the 1994 election, Cuba and South Africa began formal diplomatic ties -- and Cuba was the first country recognised diplomatically by the ANC government elected in 1994. A new page of Cuban assistance to South Africa began, today geared towards social development.

[Nicole Sarmiento is a graduate student based in Cape Town, South Africa. This article first appeared in Pambazuka News. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]


[1] See interview with senior MK commander, 2009; Mxolisi Ndlovu, 2006; Thomas, 1997.

[2] Grovogui, 2003; Young, 2001; Gleijeses, 2003; Lopez Blanch, 2008; Interview with senior MK commander, 2009; Mxolisi Ndlovu, 2006; Younis, 2000; Kasrils, 2004.

[3] This occurred at a time when few Western governments dared to speak out against the South African government and its policies, and many were supporting as well as aiding the regime with weapons that were used to oppress the vast majority of South Africa's population.

[4] Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[5] Interview with Kasrils, 2009; interview with Pahad, 2009; interview with Nkadimeng, 2009; Mtintso, 2008; Kasrils, 2008.

[6] Nzo quoted in Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[7] Interview with senior MK commander, 2009; Mxolisi Ndlovu, 2006; Thomas, 1997.

[8] George, 2005; Gleijeses, 2006.

[9] Gleijeses, 2006.

[10] Dosman, 2008; Saney, 2004.

[11] Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[12] Interview with Pahad, 2009.

[13] Motumi (1994) writes that between 1977 and 1988 almost all MK military training took place in Angola.

[14] Interview with Kasrils, 2009; Motumi, 1994; Ellis and Sechaba, 1992.

[15] Only a few Cubans and South Africans were killed, because the Cubans and the ANC/MK had managed to receive intelligence reports about the possibility of an SADF bombing of the camp. At the time the bombing occurred the camp was almost entirely evacuated (Dosman, 2009; Lopez Blanch, 2008; Kasrils, 2004; interview with Kasrils, 2009; Motumi, 1994).

[16] This was apart from the students who were sent from South Africa to study in Cuba, who were usually unaware of other cooperation or relations taking place on the island between ANC/MK and Cuba.

[17] Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[18] Mtintso quoted in Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[19] Lopez Blanch, 2008.

[20] Some of the visits to Cuba of South African resistance leaders included the 1988 visit by Cyril Ramaphosa, then general secretary of the South African National Union of Mineworkers. In 1989 Thabo Mbeki visited Cuba.

[21] According the Nkadimeng (2009), "I felt that Mandela had honoured me by sending me to Cuba, a country that was prepared to do anything for South Africa."

[22] Gonzalez Gonzalez (2009) states that the close relations between trade unions of the two countries has furthermore extended after 1994, and numerous CTC leaders from Cuba have travelled to meetings with COSATU, to continue relations and exchange among workers' federations.

[23] Aziz Pahad (2009) recalls of the SACP Congress, "[...] there was no surprise that the Congress would take place in Cuba for many of us".


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