Publication: Helen Suzman Foundation Issued: Date: 2003-09- Reporter: Raymond Lowe

The ANC's Strange Cuban Obsession



Helen Suzman Foundation

Date Focus 31, September 2003


Raymond Louw

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South Africa's constitutional democracy is in diametrical opposition to Cuba's "dictatorship of the proletariat", yet it maintains fraternal ties with Cuba

For how long should one express gratitude for past favours and how should that appreciation be manifested? The question is particularly relevant to South Africa because of the relationship this country has with Fidel Castro's Cuba.

The African National Congress (ANC) in its struggle against South Africa's apartheid regime received substantial help from Cuba which took in exiles, looked after them and gave them an education which frequently extended to tertiary qualifications. It helped the ANC militarily with weapons and training. In the ANC's war against the South African Defence Force (SADF) in Angola, Cuban soldiers fought on the side of the MPLA government's forces ranged against the SADF-aided Unita rebel movement.

And latterly, since the ANC assumed political control of South Africa nine-plus years ago, Cuba has been sending doctors to work in rough rural areas where South Africa's own doctors refuse to go and it has also been training South African doctors. There is a move afoot to bring in other Cuban skills to make up for South Africa's shortages.

The strange aspect of the symbiotic relationship between the two countries lies in the vast ideological differences between them. South Africa is democratic with one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world and through Nepad (New Partnership for Africa's Development) it is trying to export the principles of good governance and human rights throughout Africa. Castro's Cuba is a brutal dictatorship. It has a long history of suppressing opposition, jailing, torturing and executing political opponents.

No more revealing measure of this repression is Cuba's treatment of the media where 30 journalists have been jailed, a stark figure far in excess of known media-bashing countries such as Eritrea (with 18), Burma (15) and China (10). Cuba recently summarily executed three men who tried to hijack a boat to enable them to escape from the Caribbean island to nearby America.

Earlier this year, to the horror of civil rights movements throughout the world, Cuban police raided the homes of a group who had organised the first internal drive for political and human rights reforms in Cuba and arrested 78 people, 28 of them journalists, who were promptly sentenced after one-day trials to jail terms ranging from 10 to 27 years. If anything should have evoked sympathy in the ANC it was that brutal crushing of opposition to unjust laws; the ANC was hounded by South African governments for 80 years for trying to do just that in South Africa.

Instead, South African governmental bodies at local, provincial and national level fly to Cuba at a rate of two or three delegations a month to convey their fraternal greetings and swell the tourist takings of the island. Not one member has ever expressed concern in public at Cuba's failure to tolerate dissent, adhere to the rule of law or to uphold the dignity of the individual which the ANC is constantly reminding us are among the standards it applies in South Africa.

But South Africa's gratitude goes much further than fraternal visits. In international fora South Africa demonstrates its affinity with Cuba in practical fashion. A few months ago, in April, its delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in Geneva helped to marshal opposition to a United States-sponsored resolution that Cuba should receive a UNHRC inspector to verify the human rights situation on the island. The Cuban government had rejected the motion as "immoral and unfair".

Cuba's state news service, the Latin American News Agency, recorded that "after a heated debate and several moments of tension", the resolution was passed by a 24-20 vote with nine abstentions.

The question that puzzles America - which has maintained a 44-year boycott of Cuba because of its policies - and others, is whether South Africa's relationship with Cuba and its support of the country at the United Nations is compatible with the Nepad initiative which is being vigorously promoted by president Thabo Mbeki.

While the ANC government's gratitude to the Cubans for their help during the liberation struggle is understandable, the alignment with Cuba cuts across two key elements of Nepad - the requirement that African governments should strive for good governance and the elimination of human rights abuses in exchange for the G8 richest nations of the world opening their markets and providing other trade and financial aid to further the economies of these countries.

Five African countries abstained from the vote on the US resolution: Kenya, Senegal, Swazi-land, Togo and Uganda. Should South Africa have done so, too? South African Institute of International Affairs deputy director Tom Wheeler, who until June headed the Latin American desk at South Africa's foreign affairs department, says the emotional bond between South Africa's rulers and the Cubans is far too strong.

Indeed, he has told this to American diplomats who have tried to persuade South Africa to act in conformity with its constitutional principles. Fortunately for South Africa, the Americans have decided to adopt what Wheeler describes as "a benign, pragmatic view" of South Africa's attitude and conduct. Obviously it irritates the Americans but it did not prevent them from engaging in military exercises with South Africa's National Defence Force in the Free State in July.

Wheeler notes that the deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad probably summed up the difficulties of propagating human rights in Africa (and, by implication, elsewhere) when he stated recently that the issue has to be approached by what is realistic for Africa. He interprets this to mean that good governance and the elimination of human rights abuses is no longer the cornerstone of South Africa's foreign policy in the manner that former president Mandela proposed. And this statement raises a further question: Is this the start of an erosion of South Africa's constitutional values?

With acknowledgements to Raymond Louw and the Helen Suzman Foundation.