Fighting fascists in a foreign land: the amazing story of Cuba and the end of apartheid in South Africa
One of the first countries in the world that Nelson Mandela visited after he was released was Cuba, in the summer of 1991.
He said in his speech in Havana that: ‘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… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us…The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa!’
Why Mandela made this visit – and the story of Cuba, South Africa and the Angolan civil war – is not well known, and I really think it should be as it is truly fascinating and inspiring.
In the early 1970’s the fight against Apartheid and white supremacy was truly bleak. The White South African government was very much in control both in South Africa and its colony of South West Africa (Namibia). This violent, racist and aggressive state enjoyed the support of western nations, with Republican and Democratic US Presidents united in their support for the South African regime. Portugal still ruled Mozambique and Angola, as did white settlers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).
This all changed with a coup in Portugal in 1974, after which Angola and Mozambique got their independence. South Africa and its allies were very worried, with good reason, that both countries would become communist and oppose Apartheid. In Angola, the South African Army, with significant covert support from the US, invaded - their objective to dislodge the Peoples’ Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the new socialist government of Agostinho Neto, who was a quietly spoken communist and celebrated poet.
There is little doubt the South African army would have succeeded, with its far superior weapons, modern tanks and air force. The only reason it did not was the intervention by Cuba. The Cubans rushed thousands of troops to Angola and managed to support the forces of the MPLA to beat back the South African army, and its proxy Angolan ally, UNITA, under the truly monstrous Jonas Savimbi.
They set up a defensive line 250km inside Angola, which protected Angola from invasion. Then much later, in 1987, when the Angolan forces mounted a failed attempt to expel the South Africans and crush UNITA, the Cubans once again were instrumental in rescuing them, at the famous battle of Cuito Carnavale, the biggest battle on African soil since WWII. The South African Army were defeated. Soon after they retreated back to South Africa, and Namibian independence followed soon after in 1990, followed by the fall of Apartheid in 1994.
The victory of the Cubans and Angolans in the early 1970’s was a huge morale boost to opponents of racism and apartheid both outside and inside South Africa. As Mandela himself said, it ‘destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor . . . [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa’ - something that the time was very much the view of both the CIA and South African intelligence services too, as declassified documents show.
Soon after this victory, the incredible uprisings of students in Soweto, Johannesburg began, with a whole new generation of young South Africans risking their lives to fight the racist regime.
At the time, it was widely stated in the western press that Cuba was acting on behalf of the Soviet Union. The evidence from official documents now available shows that in fact the Cubans acted alone and against the wishes of the Soviet government, which in the 1970s under Brezhnev was more interested in détente, and in the 1980s under Gorbachev with Perestroika and keen not to upset the US.
The scale of the intervention, for a small, relatively poor Caribbean Island, is unprecedented, either before or since. It was massive undertaking of some 50,000 Cuban civilians and 370,000 troops between 1979 and 1991, representing five percent of Cuba’s population.
The power of a story retold
One of the wonderful things about time passing is how these incredible stories get picked up and told with much greater objectivity and with the benefit of lots of newly available documentation. I was prompted to do this blog by the book of Piero Gleijeses and an amazing interview he gave with the Dig podcast. He has unearthed many official documents, not least from the US government that give a very clear view of what was going on, and painstaking interviews with many involved.
For example, Henry Kissinger was the Secretary of State who gave the green light to covert CIA support to the South Africans in the early 1970s. Kissinger in his memoirs says he thought at the time that Cuba was just doing the bidding of Moscow, but that he was wrong, and that Fidel was the most genuine revolutionary leader of the period. I would strongly recommend listening to these interviews which are very entertaining.
One thing that strikes you is the impact of what else was going on in the world at the time. Concretely for example the Cubans were only confident in sending their best weapons and army into Angola in the 1970’s because the US failure in the war in Vietnam and, again in the late 1980’s, because the greatest hawks in the Reagan government had been disgraced by the Iran Contra scandal. The threat of invasion by the US was basically never far from Cuban minds. In fact recent secret uncovered documents show that Kissinger was so incensed at the Cuban actions in Angola that plans for invasion were indeed drawn up.
I have only visited Cuba once, in 2005, for a big conference on the debt crisis in the Global South. After the conference, a few of us went on a hiking trip in the mountains near Havana. Our mountain guide had seen our conference on state television and was excited to meet us. He said we were all warriors fighting for global justice, that we are fighting to cancel debts which is vital. He said proudly how he had fought in Angola against the racist South Africans, so he too was a warrior for social justice just like us.
I think I said something (in my terrible Spanish) that the biggest single biggest struggle in my fight for social justice is probably against the impacts of bad posture and too much conference food, whilst his was risking his life in a foreign land, and the two are really not on the same level. But he was adamant we were all fighting together for the same thing which in a way was a wonderful thing.
I think whatever your view of Cuba, this story of what Cuba did in Angola and its impact on history is hard to dispute and should be much better known. As the Gleijeses book shows, not just Mandela but the US and South African governments were both strongly of the view that the Cuban supported victory in Angola hastened the end of Apartheid- surely a truly wonderful thing.
Author: Max Lawson, Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International and EQUALS podcast co-host. He is also the co-chair of the Global People’s Vaccine Alliance.
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