For many Africans, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was a hero who battled white supremacy

While reactions poured in from all over the world on the death of Fidel Castro, the undisputed father of the Cuban revolution, the responses from a particular continent located on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were quite unparalleled. Africa and Cuba under Fidel Castro shared a very special relationship. The active assistance from Castro’s Cuba had shaped the political reality of vast parts of the southern part of Africa and their liberation from forces of naked white racism backed by sophisticated white imperialism. That debt has not been forgotten.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who has an election coming up next Thursday suspended his campaign to mourn the death of Castro. On Castro’s death, South African President Jacob Zuma said, "The Cuban people‚ under the leadership and command of President Castro‚ joined us in our struggle against apartheid."

 For many Africans, Cuban leader Fidel Castro was a hero who battled white supremacy

A file image of Cuban President Fidel Castro and former South Africa President Nelson Mandela from Castro's visit to South Africa in 1998. Reuters

The ruling African National Congress party was trained and equipped by Cuba in its years of guerilla resistance. Zuma attended Castro’s funeral in Havana with Robert Mugabe, the other black leader that the white world loves to hate. On the funeral day, the South African flag at all official spots in South Africa was flown at half-mast. It is in the backdrop of Cuba’s relationship to African liberation struggles that the response from Africa to Castro’s death makes sense.

In a world where the USA, the UK and every other so-called leaders of the free world, since rechristened as the "international community", stood behind South Africa's brutal apartheid regime as it oppressed the majority black citizens at home, occupied and propped up another racist regime in what is now free Namibia and militarily supported its own proxies in the scramble for power in new decolonised Angola, Cuba stood like a rock in support of the forces fighting the racist apartheid regime in South Africa.

In an Africa, where the white man also psychologically terrorised the darker peoples with their aura of invincibility gained by superior and costlier technology, the defeat of whites mattered in ways more than a military triumph would.

Cuba, under Castro, poured in help in support of Angola offering military personnel, medical personnel and more. And then South Africa was beaten back, swinging the conflict in Angola irreversibly in favour of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party (MPLA) that the apartheid South Africa was against.

It is important to mention that the USA and the UK were firmly behind the proxies of South Africa. This defeat of white-racist-supported-forces — the image of battle tanks manned by white racists running away from Angola back to South Africa — showed that whites could be defeated.

It also validated a principle that US black radical nationalist Malcolm X had enunciated two decades ago. Malcolm X had said, "White man can’t fight a guerilla warfare. Guerilla action takes heart, takes nerve, and he doesn’t have that. He’s brave when he’s got tanks. He’s brave when he’s got planes. He’s brave when he’s got bombs. He’s brave when he’s got a whole lot of company along with him, but you take that little man from Africa and Asia, turn him loose in the woods with a blade. That’s all he needs. All he needs is a blade. And when the sun goes down and it’s dark, it’s even-steven."

The apartheid regime in South Africa never really recovered from this defeat. They were forced to run away from Namibia which won freedom shortly afterwards. In no small way, this also had a direct bearing with the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Soon thereafter, the ANC took charge in South Africa.

The ANC was no pacifist had waged a long armed struggle against South Africa, and in such resistances, Castro’s Cuba was a friend in need. It is pertinent to mention that during this struggle against the white apartheid regime in South Africa, the USA had labelled Mandela as a terrorist — something we should keep in mind in times when that term has gained prominence everywhere, that ultimately such labels are always political labels. In Mandela’s own words, it "destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor ...[and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa." Both Mandela and Castro shared this sense of internationalism of the oppressed and a commitment to defend one's homeland mixing seamlessly, something that was well-evident in this exchange between Mandela and Castro when the two met for the first time during his 1991 visit to Cuba.

"Mandela: Before we say anything, you must tell me when you are coming to South Africa. You see — no, just a moment, just a moment, just a moment.

Castro: The sooner the better.

Mandela: And we have had a visit from a wide variety of people. And our friend, Cuba, which had helped us in training our people, gave us resources to keep current with our struggle, trained our people as doctors, and SWAPO, you have not come to our country. When are you coming?

Castro: I haven’t visited my South African homeland yet. I want it, I love it as a homeland. I love it as a homeland as I love you and the South African people.”

Mandela called the 1988 victory of Cuba over South Africa at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola as "the turning point in the liberation of our continent and of my people from the scourge of apartheid". However, 1988 wasn’t the only defeat of South Africa. Cuban soldiers had defeated South Africa twice before, in 1975 and 1976, at a time when it was not so unfashionable for the present leaders of the "civilised" white world to do business with an apartheid regime.

After Angola won independence in 1975, regular defence forces of apartheid South Africa invaded Angola with active connivance from Washington, to crush the most popular political force in Angola, the left-nationalist MPLA. The MPLA would have been defeated if Cuba hadn’t sent in tens of thousands of its own troops, which in alliance with the MPLA, drove back South African Defence Force (SADF) out of Angola into Namibia. In February 1976, the leading black South African newspaper, The World, wrote in its editorial, “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban victory in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of achieving total liberation." Nelson Mandela, who was in a South African jail at the time, later reminisced about this as the “first time then a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom”. The coloured people of the world and especially so in the subcontinent should ponder at the importance of that moment, at a time when Indian big corporates are scheming a commercial recolonisation of vast resources in huge parts of Africa.

In the context of the Cuba-assisted black people’s victory over South African forces, Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state who is wanted as a war criminal in various countries, said, "If the West could not find a counter to that, that then the whole international system could be destabilised." The "international system" was and remains a system of white supremacy, to this day. This was a time when such victories of the coloured people were cheered in the subcontinent as their own. But times have changed. The idea of international solidarity of coloured people is long-gone from the subcontinent. Now, the "aspirational" coloured have their mindscapes dominated by video games, films and shows, with a million shades of white-human-persona. We must remember this bygone time that was not that long ago. Many coloured people have a peculiar interest in the twists and turns of the World Wars. That the chivalrous white men dropped more bombs in Vietnam to crush them than they dropped on each other in Europe during the Second World War is one of those details that do not break into the coloured consciousness due to the ideological predilections we have because of the other kind of story-telling that we have become specifically attuned to.

We know about white successes and white failings, white truths and white fictions, but that’s about it. We love or critique Rambo and other "world"-saving white creatures, real and imagined, but many coloured people were saved for the likes of Cuba under Castro. Let us expand our heads to accommodate our heroes, with all their contradictions, errors and oppression too. From white noir to banal Hollywood, from the development of civil and philosophical finesse in the form of "fine" dining, schools of politics and philosophy to experimental art and delicate wines — all of this has long been subsidised by the blood and tears of non-white people and continues to be so. Africa knows it is still a white man’s world. Hence it remembers Castro’s role in Africa. So should we.

Updated Date: Nov 30, 2016 20:25:07 IST