Jane Mufamadi, CEO of Freedom Park;
Honourable Mbete, Speaker of the National Assembly and Ntate Moloi;
Comrade Nkosinathi Mthethwa, Minister of Arts and Culture;
His Excellency Mr. Rodolfo Benítez Verson, Cuban Ambassador to South Africa;
His Excellency Mr. Veiccoh K. Nghiwete, Ambassador of Namibia;
Comrade Ace Magashule, Secretary General of the African National Congress;
Comrade Sdumo Dlamini, President of COSATU;
Comrade Reneva Fourie, Secretariat Coordinator of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party;
Ms. Lefika Chetty, Representative of the Friends of Cuba Society;
Professor Muxe Nkondo and Professor Mandla Makhanya;
Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Comrade Phillipa Yaa de Villiers:
Comrades and Friends;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening. To provide remarks in commemoration of such a momentous event in southern African history is a profound honour and great privilege.
While celebratory, this occasion is simultaneously marked by an inescapable pathos that we are required to reshape into unrelenting and tenacious action that shifts the landscape of the present – in tribute to the legacy of one of the world’s paramount leaders and a watershed moment in the history of our region.
This year marks the confluence of multiple sites of memory, of which we celebrate two, as we dually honour the 100th year of Nelson Mandela and the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Intersecting the inheritance bequeathed by this iconic figure and a turning point in liberation history, is an invitation to reimagine the vision that underscored the pursuit of peace, self-determination and solidarity throughout Mandela’s life, and on the battlefields of a small south-east Angolan town.
Such a concomitant vision, built in the founding tenets of democracy and belief in humanism must endure in spite of, and indeed because of, the present’s challenges.
Tonight’s event is similarly located as a celebration of the enduring friendship between Cuba and South Africa. The connection between our countries is epitomised by the relationship between the two leaders that cemented our kinship, solidarity and shared beliefs in the freedom, equality and rights of all, through their own singular bond.
Somewhere between Johannesburg and Pretoria lies a farm – Liliesleaf Farm. Following the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, the leadership moved onto the farm, pretending to be farm labourers whilst grappling with the challenge of determining the next step in advancing the struggle for freedom. As a fugitive from the law, having left the country without a valid passport, Nelson Mandela spend time at Liliesleaf Farm and he was eventually arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to a five year term of imprisonment. This was in 1962.
The rest of the High Command of MK [uMkhonto we Sizwe] were arrested at the farm in 1963, and faced, together with Nelson Mandela, sabotage charges in the now famous Rivonia Trial! Eight of the accused were to be sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated on Robben Island Prison.
As accused number one, Nelson Mandela had skilfully used the court to explain the cause of the African people and the reasons for embracing our armed struggle. He concluded his statement from the dock with the following words:
‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
Somewhere on the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba lies a farm called Siboney. In 1953 a group of young men and women converged onto Siboney farm pretending to be poultry farmers. They were 160 in number and included Fidel, Juan de Almeida, Raul, Melba and Haydee, to name but a few.
From this farm the group planned and executed the attack on the Moncada Garrison on the 26th of July 1953. They called themselves: The Centennial Generation in honour of the birth of Jose Marti. The attack was a failure because some were killed and many more were arrested and tortured before being charged. Fidel, who had graduated as a lawyer, defended himself, skilfully arraigning the Batista regime as he eloquently explained the rationale of their cause. His statement to the court was later circulated as the legendary document: ‘History shall absolve me’. He, together with his comrades, were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.
The comparative similarities in the modus operandi of Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela are striking and explain the high affinity and mutual respect between the two leaders, Cuban and South African peoples.
Of Mandela, Castro is remembered to have said:
“We are in the presence of one who is truly a marvel of work and intelligence”. These sentiments were undoubtedly shared, as the global figures stand as metonyms for the nations they governed.
The comradeship that underscores South Africa’s relationship with Cuba throughout epochs is the direct consequence of the country’s selfless assistance during the liberation struggles of multiple nations on our continent.
Such a diplomatic bond is therefore founded on decades of solidarity, premised on a shared history of slavery and domination, and anti-imperialist ideology that Mandela and Castro held in common.
As Nelson Mandela noted on a visit to Cuba in 1991, shortly after his release from prison:
‘To the Cuban people internationalism is not only a word but something which they have put in to practice for the benefit of large sectors of mankind’
‘The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.’
There is no instance that stands as a greater illustration of these words than the event that occasions our gathering this evening: the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, acknowledged as the ‘largest battle on African soil since World War II’.
That we assemble at Freedom Park holds significant meaning. Here, the names of 2070 fallen Cuban soldiers who volunteered their service in Angola are inscribed alongside those of South African liberation heroes. In death, as in life, their intimacy is a reminder of our transcendent bond and the values and gains that we cannot allow to descend into decay.
It is a matter of great historical irony that a small town at the confluence of two rivers from which it draws its name, Cuito Cuanavale, would come to exemplify ideals far greater than its size implies.
In a region so remote that the Portuguese referred to it as ‘the Land at the End of the Earth’, ‘approximately 70,000 military combatants’ fought in a high stakes battle for multiple countries in the grip of imperialist, colonial and racist rule.
To understand the sheer weight of its impact, if we trace a line through history, the developments of the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa and independence of Namibia can be traced back to this iconic confrontation between the elected Angolan government and Angolan rebels, supplemented by international assistance. Occurring in the backdrop of the Cold War – such that author Peter Polack refers to it as ‘The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War’, it was undoubtedly a defining moment in southern African politics, shifting the landscape, and indefinitely altering the course of history.
As Nelson Mandela noted in the context of South Africa, it marked:
‘a turning point for the liberation of our continent and [our] people’.
Fought on the banks of the Lomba River, in the province of Cuando Cubango, this iconic battle emerged in the wake of Angolan independence in 1975. Between 1987 and the 23rd of March 1988, FAPLA and Cuban forces – in part assisted by the ANC, Russia, SWAPO – would fight for justice against UNITA, supported by the United States and apartheid South African government, in a conflict waged along ideological lines of racism, colonialism and imperialism that remain an enduring feature of modern life.
There are multiple accounts of the battle’s outcome. Some claim the apartheid regime made a ‘tactical retreat’, or believe the battle concluded in stalemate, while claims of limited objectives from the former government persist.
However, as former Deputy Minister of Defence and former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils notes:
‘…the acid test in this continuing debate is the outcome—which was the end of apartheid. The SADF, which had carried out continuous invasions and incursions into Angola since that country’s hard-won independence in 1975 (and the reason for the Cuban military presence in the first place), had been forced totally to withdraw; the independence of Namibia had been agreed upon; and the prospect for South African freedom had never been more promising. Before the battle for Cuito Cuanavale started in October 1987, the apartheid regime was implacably opposed to any of those options’.
To quote academic, Keith Somerville:
The significance of Cuba’s contribution to the battle, comprised of their finest pilots, sophisticated armoury and military might, is perhaps most clearly depicted in their tactical construction of a airstrips along the Angolan and Namibian border at Cahama and Xangongo, within striking distance of two hydroelectric dam systems – while sending troops further east, hence fencing the South African military forces in. Castro later described this strategy as being:
‘like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right- strikes’.
Nothing illustrates the bravery, commitment and innovation of the Cubans better than how they converted their small planes into long haul planes in order to cross the Atlantic to Angola without stopping anywhere to refuel. Comrade Pedro Ross, the General Secretary of the CTC explained to me how the hand luggage stowage racks were converted into additional fuel tanks. It literally means the Cuban combatants flew across the Atlantic in bombs!!
The actions of joint forces in Angola, with profound contributions by volunteer Cuban combatives and military equipment that crossed the Atlantic resulted in profound victories. The events at Cuito Cuanavale brought South African Border War to an end, led to peace negotiations that culminated in the withdrawal of SADF, MK and Cuban from Angola and Namibia independence in March 1990 through negotiations began in early 1988, and continued in May 1989.
As Fidel Castro stated, justifying the Cuban intervention:
‘We knew…that those events would have a profound influence on the life of South Africa, and it was one of the reasons, one of the motivations, one of the great stimuli that drove us; because we knew that by solving the problem there in Angola, the forces that fought against apartheid would also receive the benefits of our struggles.’
The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is a watershed event in our collective history. The vision that inspired the liberation forces who stood in solidarity on foreign land did so in spite of differences, and because of our indisputably shared struggle.
In pursuit of the highest humanist ideals that transcends the ages; our arrival at this moment in history was initiated by the actions of a brave multitude, in service of a dream of a liberated future that is our inheritance.
In honouring this legacy, of this battle and the life work of Nelson Mandela, we are called to persistently defend the ideals of peace, justice, equality, self-determination and freedom, both within and outside of our borders.
The internationalist spirit that continues to inspire Cuban solidarity must become our own – particularly when Cuba finds herself in need, be it through natural disasters or other emergencies. In these moments, we must immediately mobilise our resources, in the same manner that Cuba rapidly assists all nations facing crisis, sending in doctors, experts and other forms of aid.
By July this year, about 700 medical students will return from Cuba. We must prepare thoroughly for their integration in our medical schools. Dr Puento Ferro, responsible for Africa in the Central Committee, suggested that they could send professors to South Africa, to train students locally, as we have all the required resources. We must never allow this programme, agreed to by Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela to terminate. Doing so most acutely dishonours the legacy of Cuito Cuanavale and Nelson Mandela.
Therefore it is fitting that I close with the words of the great South African statesman, who said of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale:
‘ ‘If today all South Africans enjoy the rights of democracy; if they are able at last to address the grinding poverty of a system that denied them even the most basic amenities of life, it is also because of Cuba`s selfless support for the struggle to free all of South Africa`s people and the countries of our region from the inhumane and destructive system of apartheid.’
‘The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa…Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa. Cuito Cuanavale marked an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid.’
Thank you for your kind attention.
 Mills & Williams
 http://www.anc.org.za/content/speech-president-nelson-mandela-banquet-honour-president-castro-cuba Banquet in Honour of President Castro of Cuba
4 September 1998, Paarl