New book highlights Cuban contribution to the fall of apartheid



Piero Gleijeses, 2013, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill

by Emile Schepers

On January 1, the world celebrated the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, an event which has had immense and lasting worldwide repercussions.

On December 5, we lost Nelson Mandela.  The revolutionary freedom movement that he headed with such passion and dignity might have had a very different outcome, had it not been for Cuba's active international solidarity with the freedom struggle in Southern Africa. Cuba, from the 1970s to 1991 sent a total of 380,000 military personnel and 75,000 aid workers to Angola, to keep that country from being destroyed in its cradle by the ruthless onslaught of South Africa and its agents, backed by the United States.   Cuban action in Angola led directly to the independence of Namibia and the end of the apartheid system in South Africa.

In a new book, U.S. historian Piero Gleijeses gives us a detailed exposition of Cuba's intervention and its impact on the struggle for the survival of Angola, the independence of Namibia, and the demise of the odious apartheid system in South Africa. 

Gleijeses' book takes up where he left off in his 2002 work, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, (University of North Carolina Press), which dealt with earlier Cuban solidarity missions in Africa.  It is not a military history, though it provides insights into important strategic controversies.  Rather, it focuses in a masterly way on the political and diplomatic dynamics among Angolan, Cuban, Soviet, South African and U.S. leaders.  Gleijeses, Italian-born and currently based at Johns Hopkins University, has mined a vast array of official and unofficial documents from all the nations involved, as well as carrying out interviews with scores of officials and witnesses to events.

In 1920 the League of Nations awarded the former German colony of Southwest Africa (today's Namibia) to South Africa as a mandated territory. After World War II, League of Nations Mandates were supposed to be transformed into United Nations Trust Territories, which would have required them to be prepared for independence with majority rule.  South Africa refused to cooperate, wanting to annex Southwest Africa completely.  After the ultra-racist Nationalist Party won the South African elections of 1948, it also imposed the brutal apartheid system on Southwest Africa.   This led to resistance led by SWAPO, the South West African People's Organization, founded in 1960.  In the mid-1960s, SWAPO commenced armed struggle.  This struggle was extremely difficult until, in 1974, the dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano of Portugal was overthrown and the imminent independence of all Portuguese colonies in Africa was announced, setting off a dynamic in Angola that changed the picture radically. 

Three Angolan guerilla groups now vied for control of soon-to-be-independent Angola:  The MNLA, National Movement for the Liberation of Angola, led by the Marxist intellectual Augustinho Neto, the National Liberation Front for Angola (FLNA)  led by Holden Roberto who had ties both with the Dictator of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (at that time Zaire), Mlhobutu Sese Seko and the U.S. national security agencies, and UNITA, led by the charismatic but ruthless warlord Jonas Savimbi, a former collaborator with the Portuguese who quickly became the main Angolan ally of both apartheid South Africa and the United States.   The MNLA quickly established itself as the government of newly independent Angola, and was recognized as such by most nations except the United States.  But South Africa could not tolerate this, because Neto's government allowed both SWAPO and the (South) African National Congress (ANC) with its armed branch, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK) to establish rear bases in Angola.

From the early 1960s to the mid 1970s, the fortunes of the ANC were at a low ebb. Some of its best leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were serving long prison sentences and repression was so strong that mass struggle became very difficult. But in 1976, thousands of young people in the Johannesburg district of Soweto rebelled against inferior schools. This rebellion, and the brutal fashion in which it was repressed, not only re-ignited the internal struggle but also sent thousands of Black South Africans across the nation's borders into the neighboring independent states, as refugees but also as recruits for the ANC and MK. 

Most states bordering South Africa, such as Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana, did not allow their territory to become a base for MK and ANC organizing, for fear of South African reprisals. But Angola and the other newly freed former Portuguese colony, Mozambique, resisted this fear.  So SWAPO and the ANC began to have a place of refuge directly bordering Southwest Africa and South Africa, which the apartheid regime correctly saw as a dangerous threat.

The South African military struck back hard, invading Angola from the South, while Holden Roberto attacked from the north.  But at that point, in late 1975, Cuba sent its first large scale military mission to Angola.  This mission was successful in helping Neto's government to beat back the attacks.

Up until 1977, the U.S. had simply acted as an ally of the apartheid regime.  President Jimmy Carter disapproved of South Africa's apartheid system and was also thinking of normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations. But the intervention of Cuba in Angola gave an opening to the hawkish anti-communists in his administration, especially to the National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to pressure Carter to back off from normalizing relations with Cuba and to give material aid to Savimbi.  In 1978, the United States did not veto Resolution 435 of the United Nations Security Council, which required South Africa to grant full independence with majority rule to Namibia, but imposed no sanctions.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he enthusiastically embraced fascists (white and black) in Southern Africa, under the fig-leaf of "constructive engagement".  An unabashed admirer of apartheid South Africa, he added Savimbi to the list of his favorite foreign clients and opened the spigots of aid.  South Africa and Savimbi ramped up their attacks.

However, starting in 1984, mass protests, strikes and other acts of resistance increased in South Africa, and the apartheid regime, now headed by hard line president P.W. Botha, hit back hard at Angola and Mozambique, in March 1984 Mozambican President Samora Machel was forced to sign the Nkomati Port agreement. This traded off an end to South African support for the terrorist RENAMO organization in exchange for Machel's agreement to expel the ANC from Mozambique.

South African attacks into Angola, and support for Savimbi, (Roberto was now out of the picture), led to further Cuban solidarity actions. 

In Angola, Cuban and Soviet advisors pulled in different directions.  Gleijeses gives details of these disputes, which give the lie to the propaganda line that the Cubans in Angola acted as "Soviet proxies" or even "mercenaries".  The Cubans wanted their own troops to be in charge of keeping the S Africans from penetrating further into Angola, having established a defensive line in the Southwest of the country opposite the border of Southwest Africa.  But Soviet advisors thought that the priority should be to go after Savimbi whose main headquarters was in the far Southeast.  Air cover was the biggest problem: South African warplanes could run rampant against Angolan forces, and the Angolans and Cubans had neither the fighter planes nor the mobile anti-aircraft guns to do anything about it.  Fidel Castro offered to cover this need but asked the USSR to supply Cuba with replacement aircraft and other equipment, but without success.  The Cubans were afraid to send over their limited supplies of equipment and more troops, lest the United States take advantage of this to launch an attack on the island.

But in 1986, the U.S. Congress managed to override President Reagan's veto and impose sanctions on South Africa.  The Iran Contra scandal, also starting in 1986, neutralized the worst war hawks in the Reagan administration and weakened Reagan overall, allaying Fidel Castro's fear of a US. attack on the island.  He at last was able to provide the allied forces in Angola with high quality air cover, and massively increased the Cuban military presence, to a high point of 55,000 troops.

In late 1987, the Angolans began a drive to capture Savimbi's headquarters at Jamba, Southeast of Mavinga in Southeastern Angola's Cuando Cubango province (see map). The Angolan forces were driven back on their own base at Cuito Cuanavale, where they were dangerously besieged.  The Cubans then transferred enough troops and equipment, including jet planes, from their "line" in Southwestern Angola, parallel with the border with Southwest Africa, to rescue the situation and lift the siege. The South African/UNITA forces were dramatically checked. The Cuban and Angolan forces in the Southwest then began a march toward the Southwest Africa border that unnerved the South Africans, especially after the Cuban-Angolan force won a major victory at Calueque in the Southwest. 

In a series of complex negotiations among the United States, South Africa, Angola and Cuba, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, tried to do a last minute "save" that would link South African acceptance of U.N. Security Council resolution 435 in exchange for the Cuban departure from Angola.  But he was not able to stop Southwest Africa, as Namibia, from gaining its full independence, with Sam Nujoma, the head of SWAPO, as its first president.

Shortly after, the South African regime, in which the intransigent P.W. Botha was replaced with the more agile F.W. de Clerk as President, began to talk to their number one prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

This led to the unbanning of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and other liberation organizations, the release of Mandela and all the other political prisoners, and, in 1994, South Africa's first democratic elections, in which Mandela was elected president by a large majority.

South Africas's black majority, and humanity, was fortunate in that the apartheid regime could not hold out beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had a dire economic impact on Cuba's ability to continue large scale military and civil solidarity operations. 

One shudders to think of what would have happened had it not been for Cuba's disinterested solidarity with the peoples of Southern Africa, solidarity which, far from benefiting Cuba, cost it dearly in terms of money and lives.  For this reason, Nelson Mandela treated demands that he repudiate his Cuban allies with the contempt they deserved. 

As Mandela put it "What other country can point to a greater record of selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?" (page 526)


Map of Angola, useable per Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Fidel Castro with South African President Thabo Mbeki (right) and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson (left).  Wikipedia




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  • Note: One would multiply the anti-apartheid activities of every country in the world, the varied cooperation and interpenetrations thereof to measure the full measure of the magnitude of the power of the international working class and its allies, in aiding ending South African apartheid; the present writer named some organizations of the United States in this movement's history for instances.
    Gleijeses, according to the net's Wikipedia, is the only foreign scholar to be granted access to Cuba's Castro era archives. Thanks to him for this excellent book and work.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/28/2014 11:38am (8 years ago)

  • This astonishing book, with review by Emile Schepers, sheds much light on the interpenetrations of history[s forces and contributes greatly to understanding the dialectical nature of class and international development, with the working class and anti-imperialists at the lead of these forces.
    Since PA is now looking at Lenin's theory of the state, through materials gathered and presented by Thomas Riggins, it offers an almost ideal instance of transformations in the modern state, including what Marx called its superstructure.
    Moreover, it is demonstrated that the workers and communists (SACP, COSATU, and ANC)in the first place, with its socialist supporter, Cuba, in this case (including its cultural and military institutional components), but including advanced international and U. S. components, like Trans-Africa, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation, the CPUSA, the Congressional Black Caucus, scores and scores of grass-roots and church-community and faith based organizations, will be successful in transforming the state to its own image, rather than cowering to the substantial power of ruling class institutions, manifested in the labyrinth of the U. S. Prison, Military, and Industrial Complex, its "intelligence"(really repression, militarism, organized murder(systematic assassinations), or war and threat of nuclear war).
    The almost three decade imprisonment of freedom fighter Nelson Mandela shows this in the CIA operations central to halting(for the nonce) freedom and democratic movements in South Africa(and throughout the world, in Cuba, Guinea, Granada, Haiti, and the Congo, for instances).
    It was a long struggle, but the unity of the world's peoples, with the South African people in the lead, effected this hero's freedom, changing the world and the capitalist world's superstructure, by effectively transforming its base.
    This book makes it clear that Cuba must continue to play its pivotal role in protecting freedom fighters everywhere in the world(with equitable economic trade, exchange of information, scientific and social help programs now, not war or violence), and that we can start by freeing the heroic Cuban 5 and normalizing all economic, political, social, cultural, scientific and diplomatic relationships with Cuba.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/27/2014 11:22am (8 years ago)

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