Fidel Castro, a South African Hero

Nelson Mandela once wrote that “there is no passion to be found playing small — in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” It is almost as if Mandela had Fidel Castro in mind when he wrote those words.

There is no in-between space where Castro can be ignored or dismissed. He was either loved or loathed. To his enemies, he was a dictator. But to South Africans who suffered under apartheid, he was a beacon of freedom.

The bonds between Castro and Mandela, between the Cuban and the South African people, go back to the late 1950s.

In 1956, the apartheid regime indicted 156 rights leaders, including Mandela, from all walks of life and every corner of the country on charges of high treason for mobilizing peacefully against white minority rule. The trial dragged on for four years, and South Africa remained trapped in a cycle of repression and resistance for more than 30 years. (I was not among the accused that time. But in the mid-1960s I found myself serving a 12-year prison stint on Robben Island together with Mandela.)

During the Treason Trial, South Africa’s freedom fighters learned of the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks carried out by Castro and some 140 of his comrades on July 26, 1953. At his trial, Castro denied nothing and took pride in standing up for democracy, ending his defense with a heroic claim: “History will absolve me.”

That message resonated with our 156 leaders, as well as young activists like myself.

Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1991. Castro was a figure of inspiration to apartheid opponents. Credit Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Nelson Mandela with Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1991. Castro was a figure of inspiration to apartheid opponents. Credit Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Six years later, on Jan. 1, 1959, we woke up to the news that the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled, that Castro and his July 26 Movement had triumphed. Although it had failed in its immediate goal, the Moncada Barracks attack became a recruiting tool and a major part of the success of the July 26 Movement.

Thus began the leadership of a man who indeed found no passion in playing small, who lived his life on an impoverished island at the doorstep of the mighty United States yet left an imprint on the history of the world.

It was the beginning of the love affair between Castro and the people of Cuba and Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters of South Africa, as well as across our continent, where he is today being mourned and celebrated as a freedom fighter himself.

That love blossomed in 1966 when Havana hosted the Tri-Continental Conference, a meeting of leaders from national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including South Africa’s.

And the relationship between Castro’s Cuba and the liberation struggle of South Africa grew deep roots when, in the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba provided military training and other forms of assistance to South Africans.

I was privileged to meet Castro in 1987, when Cuba helped prepare me for my mission into South Africa for the African National Congress’s Operation Vula. As part of that operation, members of the exile leadership infiltrated South Africa as the advance guard working clandestinely in the country.

I can still feel the energy Castro exuded. I remember the unreserved readiness with which he responded to our requests to help my mission as the commander of Operation Vula. He bore none of the posture of a person seeking to make his presence and power felt. I felt myself become a better person in his company — better in the sense of wanting to never stop making a difference to the lives of others.

Our interactions with Castro and the Cuban people reinforced a deeper understanding of the significance of the freedom for which we were fighting. During the late 1970s and ’80s, the A.N.C. and its military wing had their main camps in the People’s Republic of Angola. So did Swapo, the Namibian liberation movement.

From the moment Angola achieved independence in 1974, the military might of the apartheid South African state was turned to overthrowing the Angolan government. Angola survived in large part because Cuba sent its soldiers to give their lives for the freedom of the people of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Their blood has seeped into the soil of my continent.

In the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which lasted from 1987 to 1988 and was one of the largest battles on African soil, Castro committed thousands of elite Cuban troops to fight for freedom.

That bloody battle buried the apartheid regime’s military ambitions and paved the way for the peace accord mediated by the United States and signed in 1988. It led to the withdrawal of all foreign belligerents from Angola and the independence of Namibia. The agreement also led to the closing of the A.N.C.’s camps in Angola — a development that ultimately helped bring the apartheid regime and the liberation forces headed by the A.N.C. to negotiate South Africa’s transition from white minority rule to democracy.

Mandela, in notes for what was intended to be a sequel to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” wrote: “Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem they never existed at all.”

The world will always know that there once was a man named Fidel Castro. Africans will never forget him. His unshakable anticolonial and anti-apartheid beliefs guarantee a revered place for him in the hearts of South Africans.

Mac Maharaj was the joint secretary of the multiparty negotiation process to end apartheid from 1991 to 1994 and the minister of transport under President Nelson Mandela.

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