BUSANI NGCAWENI: Cuba upholding ‘solidarity forever’ during COVID-19


The sight of the Cuban medical brigade emerging from a South African Airways (SAA) flight at Waterkloof Air Force Base in the early hours of the morning of 27 of April 2020 will forever be etched in memory.

Holding the flags of our two nations aloft, these men and women from Cuba: a small Caribbean island with a gigantic global reputation especially in the developing South, arrived to help South Africa in her hour of need. Their arrival on Freedom Day, the 26th anniversary of our first democratic elections, is more than politically symbolic.

We owe this freedom to the Cuban people, as we do to all the people of the world who sacrificed their people and resources in the selfless acts of human solidarity with the oppressed of our country and the continent at large.

Inside South Africa our people participated in mass mobilisation and underground operations. Globally, the people of Cuba were central in promoting international solidarity and support for our armed struggle.

The landing of the Cuban healthcare workers in South Africa to aid the national effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic is testimony to the enduring bonds between our two peoples.

Just days ago, the South African government dispatched medical supplies to Cuba to address their own pressing medical needs – the consequence of the on-going illegal US-imposed blockade of the island nation, and the persistent attempts by Washington and its allies to impose their will on the Cuban people.

As the saying goes, pictures tell a thousand words, and often enduring stories.

Who can forget the broad smiles and embraces between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro when Mandela visited Cuba in 1991 and when Castro attended Mandela’s inauguration on May 10 1994, following Mandela’s resounding victory at the 27 April national elections. There would be many further interactions between the two icons at Summits, State Visits and other multilateral forums.

Please, dear reader, go online and witness for yourself the many stories told by the images of these revolutionaries, observe the iconography of humility.

For my part these pictures tell a story of remarkable compassion. Here were two fearless elderly statesmen with renowned revolutionary credentials remaining deeply engulfed in the spirit of brotherhood.

Theirs was not a mechanical relationship but deep in both spirit and conviction. Their handholding (thankfully their relationship predated the coronavirus era of social distancing), embraces and other warm gestures are extensive material waiting for biographers, filmmakers and behavioral psychologists to interpret.

Their relationship reminds us that national liberation can only be attained if pursued by a leadership that truly cares for the people and for their socio-economic, political and epistemic freedoms.

You cannot love those you represent without fellowship with those you lead with - like Mandela and Castro. The meta-consciousness of international solidarity is built from the deep love for the people, at home and abroad.

Freedom is an outcome of the struggle to be human, and leading with compassion is an act of the restoration of human dignity.

It is from this principle that Castro joined the struggles of national liberation in Africa. He understood that his own struggles for freedom against imperialism were intricately connected with the struggles of the African people for self-determination.

The Cuban health workers who landed in Tshwane are continuing a long tradition of Cubans who sacrificed their lives in efforts to restore the dignity of Africans. They first came as soldiers to fight racism. After freedom they came as engineers and doctors to build social infrastructure. Beyond the exile years, they opened their educational institutions to train African doctors.

South Africa is the largest beneficiary of these long bonds of brotherhood. Evidently, the warmth and comradeship demonstrated by Mandela and Castro represented the joy of a farmer who sees his harvest yield a bounty harvest.

To paraphrase Nina Simone’s tribute to Martin Luther King in the song “Why” (The King of Love is Dead): once upon this planet earth lived men of humbled being, preaching love and freedom to fellow man, they were for equality, they were non-violent, what are we gonna do now that the kings of love are dead!

A luta continua! as Miriam Makeba sang at Mozambique’s independence.

Assuring Cubans that their internationalist outlook was permeating throughout Africa, Madiba made these remarks to Castro when he visited Havana in 1991: “The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory... made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence.”

Indeed the struggle continues for many in the global South. For this struggle to succeed, the leadership must unite the people worldwide.

In the face of this invisible enemy which threatens to devastate our country, the region and the world over, it is important that we dip our heads and salute those who made it possible for the people of the world to come together to share ideas, cultures and resources.

They did so knowing fully well that freedom will be incomplete until all of humanity is free. Hence Madiba declared in front of Castro and Yasser Arafat, at his inauguration on 10 May 1994, that South Africa will not be free until Palestine is free.

Government continues this tradition, for the bonds of solidarity with Palestine and the Western Sahara remain intact. No atomic bomb, deadly drones nor epidemics will stop the time and reverse these chains of friendship, to borrow from Bob Marley. The redemption song continues to ring in living memory.

The companionship between the people of Cuba and South Africa, as cemented by the brotherhood of Mandela and Castro is best described by Fyodor Dostoevsky who writes: “I love humanity... The more I love humanity in general the less I love man [individual/ person] in particular... In my dreams I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity... The more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”

The two leaders were no saints. In Mandela’s words, he was a sinner who kept on trying. For his part, Castro understood that history will absolve him, for his ideas transcend time and space - all in the service of humanity.

Welcome to South Africa, compañeros!

Continue to teach the world the values of human solidarity and compassion. South Africa must reciprocate by using its endowments and leadership to advance struggles of political, intellectual and economic freedoms in Africa and the rest of the global South.

Our fortunes are tied to the well-being of all whose prosperity has been derailed by imperialism and the Euro-American hegemony which places neither value nor belief in the humanity of Africans in particular.

Paying homage to Castro, poet Pablo Neruda writes in the “Song of Protest”:

Fidel, Fidel, the people are grateful
for words in action and deeds that sing,
that is why I bring from far
a cup of my country’s wine:
it is the blood of a subterranean people
That from the shadows reaches your throat,
they are miners who have lived for centuries
extracting fire from the frozen land…

And they support you because you represent
the collective honor of our long struggle,
and if Cuba were to fall we would all fall,
and we would come to lift her,
And if she blooms with flowers
She will flourish with our own nectar.

Substitute Castro for Madiba and Cuba for South Africa, these words ring true today. The triumph of South Africa must multiply throughout Africa and the developing world. It must translate into freedom against racial inequality and landlessness.

Standing together with progressive peoples of the world, we will outlive COVID-19, just as the combination of international solidarity, social mobilisation, scientific evidence and responsive public policy has saved our country from the scourge of HIV and Aids.

Solidarity forever, for unity makes us strong.

Hasta la victoria siempre!

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni