Skip to main content

Mandela in Cuba

Nelson Mandela visited the island nation in 1991. His interactions with Fidel Castro would inform some of his negotiations with the National Party to end apartheid.

printer friendly  
25 July 1991: Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro during Mandela's historic visit to Cuba soon after he was released from prison, Lily Franey/ Gamma-Rapho

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he asked me to write his speeches. At one point, Thabo Mbeki and myself were both designated as official speech writers. I didn’t think Mbeki was so keen and I certainly was not very keen, because my main job was as ANC head of political education and that entailed a great deal of work. 

However, I did put a lot of effort into writing the speeches, because I understood that everything you wrote for Mandela would become historic, so you had to ensure that you chose every word carefully. I remember at the time that if I was asked to do a speech, I would go home in the afternoon and bring it in the next morning. Carol Paton, who is now the editor-at-large at Business Day, would edit it and then I would give it to Mandela’s office. 

Over time, I indicated to him that I would prefer not to write speeches, and I did so less often. But there were certain types of speeches that he specifically wanted me to do, for example, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate from a university and had to speak to the type of audience that I knew well. 

There was one speech I did want to write and that was when he went on a visit to Latin America, which included calling on Cuba. That was very important for me, because I knew the critical role the Cubans had played in the defeat of the apartheid defence force in backing the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola, Fapla, in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. 

That was a historic moment in the defeat of colonialism in southern Africa and of apartheid in both South Africa and South West Africa, as Namibia was then named. I was keen to go to Cuba in any case, because I was then a communist in the SACP leadership. I had more than a soft spot for Cuba – I admired almost everything I knew about Cuba and I wanted to see it for myself. I wanted to write Mandela’s speech for Cuba in order to thank the Cubans for what they had done for South Africa and for the people of southern Africa, as well as for many other countries. I requested to be part of the delegation and it was agreed.

This trip to Cuba with Mandela was in July 1991, almost 30 years ago. He also visited a number of other Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Mexico, Jamaica, Brazil, Argentina and Peru. Other than Jamaica, I was not particularly interested in visiting these countries because most were then, to varying degrees, under reactionary governments. Although we did interact with people outside of governments in various countries, in general these meetings were but a prelude to the main destination. 

The visit to Jamaica was, however, interesting and moving. Many Jamaicans thronged the streets to applaud Mandela. We attended a huge reggae concert and we watched the Jamaican Parliament in action. The parliamentarians had an interesting way of applauding – a rhythmic patting of the parliamentary benches with their hands, which sounded like a cross between a bass guitar and a drum. 

Memorable reception

When we arrived in Cuba, it was a very different reception from the other places. On every street pole there was a picture of Mandela, and the ANC colours were on display throughout Havana. A special song had even been composed for Mandela by Pablo Milanes, one of the island’s top musicians. As I recall it, we only went to Havana and Matanzas, where the celebration of the 38th anniversary of the start of the revolution was to be held during our visit. 

Before that we visited various sites, one of which was a sport complex. People sometimes underestimate how important boxing was to Mandela, who turned to Fidel Castro during the visit and said, “What’s happened to Stevenson?”

Teófilo Stevenson was a champion heavyweight boxer who by then had won three Olympic titles for Cuba. In response to Mandela’s question, Castro called up Stevenson from somewhere in the crowd below. He came up and the two boxers hugged one another. 

26 July 1991: A Cuban family next to a poster celebrating the arrival of Nelson Mandela for the anniversary of the revolution in Matanzas, Cuba. (Photograph by Lily Franey/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

There was a press conference shortly after Mandela’s arrival. Some people from the Western media and diplomats criticised the ANC and Mandela himself for having close relationships with Cuba, which they described as a dictatorship. 

Mandela got very angry. But it was an anger that was controlled and logical, and he made it clear that those countries that had not offered any support to the South African struggle had no right to prescribe to the ANC with whom it should be friends. 

From the very beginning, the Cuban people and their government had made it clear that they were prepared to offer every resource within their capacity to help with the South African struggle. And this was at a time when few of the Western countries were prepared to assist at all. Mandela said he was not prepared to be advised who his friends should be when the Cuban people and government had proved themselves over many decades. 

Instructions and protocol

I was to write the speech Mandela would give at the Matanzas gathering. When I started to work on it, some Cuban officials visited me to ask if I was the speech writer. When I confirmed this, they told me that there was a particular format for addressing Castro: “First secretary of the Communist Party, president of the Council of State and of the government of Cuba, president of the socialist republic of Cuba, commander-in-chief, Comrade Fidel Castro.” 

They also asked me if I was going to mention Che Guevara and José Martí, a foundational figure in Cuban liberation history. I said I intended to do so. They gave me some information they thought I should consider including in the speech, which I used. When Mandela delivered his speech and mentioned Guevara and Martí, the audience stood up and applauded. 

(I had asked these officials whether it was possible for me to stay longer and receive training in political education, but they said that I should rather make a separate visit later. Shortly after my return to South Africa, I learnt that the person who was head of the equivalent of political education in the Cuban government and Communist Party had been dismissed for corruption or similar irregular conduct. That may have been one of the reasons they were not ready to make any form of commitment in regard to my request.) 

When we went to the stadium for Mandela’s address on 26 July, he was wearing the Cuban shirt that many South Africans who had been in the struggle wear, the guayabera. Mandela and Castro obviously related very well to each other and embraced and walked together to the platform. The crowd applauded Mandela warmly. 

In Mandela’s speech, which is published in a book together with Castro’s, tribute was paid to the role of the Cubans in contributing to the liberation of South Africa. It was also a statement of the aims of the ANC as a future government and the close relationship that it would continue to have with the government and people of Cuba. 

Castro’s response

Castro had not seen the speech before Mandela delivered it. But he immediately responded with a speech that was about an hour long, which was not the longest speech he had ever made. It was beautiful. He expressed his admiration for Mandela and said how important it was to have him voice the appreciation of the South African people for Cubans’ contribution towards their liberation. 

He then gave an analysis of the international situation, and I remember the impression it made on Mandela, who would later repeat Castro’s reference to the trillions in debt owed by the United States. 

Many people don’t understand that Castro was not a conventional popular political orator. He was a very learned person. He always read a lot and was knowledgeable on a range of topics. Before I wrote Mandela’s speech, I had read quite a few of Castro’s, and the interjections showed the people’s appreciation. They would often shout, “Fidel, Fidel, give the Yankees hell!” 

25 July 1991: Nelson Mandela, standing next to Fidel Castro, greets Cuban Olympic boxing champion Teófilo Stevenson in Havana, Cuba. (Photograph by Rafael Perez/ AFP)

He appeared to be very popular. And as far as I could see, the revolution had the support of the majority of the people. This is not to say that the Cuban people were docile. Deborah Shnookal of Ocean Press, which had special rights to publish books from Cuba, said to me that the Cubans “whinge” a lot. I remember hearing a story about a man complaining about the price of petrol. The person who told me this said they asked him what car he drove and he said he didn’t have one. 

Mandela also had a meeting with Castro, during the course of which he told the Cuban leader “we may walk out of the talks”. I think Mandela thought that this would strike a chord with the militant Castro. But he responded by saying, “And how do you see the process unfolding if you do that?”

Always strategic

What I realised then – and this is something that Mbeki confirmed later – is that Castro was militant but always strategic. He didn’t admire radical actions and militancy just for their own sake. He always wanted to understand how a process would unfold and what strategies informed what one was doing to achieve a particular goal. 

I learnt later, when Mbeki was launching the South African Democratic Education Trust series on South African resistance history, that at a certain point when they were in exile, Castro had asked the ANC leadership to visit Havana to discuss the Freedom Charter. Mbeki and others thought it would be a simple task because they knew the charter so well.

When they got there, Castro said to them, “In the Freedom Charter, you are planning to nationalise the mines. But are you in the position to actually run the mines?” And he pointed out the Cubans’ lack of preparedness for certain consequences of their revolution. 

For example, the Cubans were famous for making a rum that, before the revolution, was named Bacardi. When they defeated the Batista regime, one of the sources they hoped to use to fund some of their programmes was the export of this rum. But Bacardi had copyrighted the use of the name and the Cuban revolutionaries could not use it. 

What Mbeki was saying is that Castro showed that the question of government was not a simple case of nationalising this and that, or seizing this or that, and no less a militant than Castro led the ANC to understand this better, some time before 1994.

Foresight and wisdom

It is well known that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allied states presented new challenges to Cuba, which had received considerable assistance, notably a supply of subsidised oil and other products, from the USSR. This happened to a state that was already embattled by US sanctions.

At the time, we were all grappling with the meaning of the gradual collapse of the former Soviet bloc. At one point, Winnie Mandela asked Castro, “What do you think of Gorbachev?” He paused a moment and said, “You don’t go into the middle of the ocean and throw away your oars.” 

Circa 1991: Three workers paste a portrait of Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev onto a billboard in Havana, Cuba. (Photograph by Peter Turnley/ Corbis/ VCG via Getty Images)

None of us had heard this kind of commentary on the period of perestroika and its consequences for Soviet communism. It is not, of course, a complete explanation of the Gorbachev period and how it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor on whether his actions were decisive in the demise of Soviet socialism.

What may be the most fruitful way of relating to this comment is to revert to Castro’s reaction to Mandela saying that the ANC might walk out of the talks. In a sense, to have walked out of the talks would have been to throw away the method that had been found to break the deadlock between the forces of apartheid and the forces of liberation. 

The comment on Gorbachev is, in a sense, an echo of the comment on Mandela “walking out”. Many of us who emerged from insurrection were sceptical of negotiations on South Africa’s future. Mandela had the foresight to find a way out of what Antonio Gramsci had called a “reciprocal siege”.

3 November 1991: A portrait of Fidel Castro on a street in Cuba. (Photograph by Alexis Duclos/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

[Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner ]

Thanks to the author for sending this to Portside.

This article was first published by New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa.