When Nelson Mandela Said 'Viva Fidel!'

'We have come here today recognising our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?'

This article first appeared on November 28, 2016, and is being republished to mark Nelson Mandela’s birth anniversary.

The South African leader Nelson Mandela visited Cuba in 1991 to deliver a speech in Matanzas on the 38th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution. The racist regime had been forced to release him from prison in 1990 and the struggle against apartheid was at a decisive stage. In his speech, Mandela thanked Cuba for the help it had given to his people and the entire people of Africa.

From its earliest days, the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gain made in the Cuban Revolution. We too want to control our own destiny. We are determined that the people of South Africa will make their future, and that they will continue to exercise their full democratic rights after liberation from apartheid. We do not want the popular participation to sit at the moment when apartheid goes. We want to have the moment of liberation open the way to ever-deepening democracy.

We admire the achievements of the Cuban Revolution in the sphere of social welfare. We note that the transformation from a country of imposed backwardness to universal literacy. We acknowledge your advances in the fields of health, education and science.

There are many things we learn from your experience. In particular, we are moved by your affirmations of the historical connections with the continent and people of Africa. Your consistent commitment to the systematic eradication of racism is unparalleled. But the most important lesson that you have for us is that no matter what the odds, no matter under what difficulties you have, you had to struggle. There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death…

We recognise that today’s revolutionary spirit began long ago and that this spirit has been nurtured with the efforts of those who fought for the freedom of Cuba and, in fact, the freedom of all who were suffering under imperialist domination. We also find inspiration in the life and example of Jose Marti who is not only a Cuban and Latin American hero, but an admired symbol for all those who fight for freedom. We also honour the great Che Guevara [applause] whose outstanding revolutionary efforts, even on our continent, were of such magnitude that no prison nor censorship could conceal him from us. His life is an inspiration for all those who love freedom. We will always honour his memory.

We are humbled and full of emotion to be here. We have come here today recognising our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? How many countries benefit from Cuban health care professionals and educators? How many of these volunteers are now in Africa? What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their freedom have been able to count on the support of Cuba?

I was still in prison when I first heard of the massive help which the Cuban international forces were giving to the people of Angola. The help was of such a scale that it was difficult for us to believe it, when the Angolans were under attack by the combined forces of South Africa, the FALA [Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola] who were financed by the CIA, mercenaries, UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola], and Zaire in 1975.

In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours. We also acknowledge that the action was carried out by the masses in Cuba and that those who fought and died in Angola are only a small portion of those who volunteered to go. To the Cuban people internationalism is not only a word but something which they have put into practice for the benefit of large sectors of mankind. We know that the Cuban forces were ready to retreat after driving back the invasion in 1975 but the continued aggressions of Pretoria did not allow them to do so. Your presence there and the reinforcements sent for the battle of Cuito Cuanavale has a historical meaning. The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence.

The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor. The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa. Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organisations would not have been legalised. The defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale made it possible for me to be here with you today. Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa. Cuito Cuanavale marks an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid…

I should mention that when we wanted to take up arms, we approached numerous Western governments in search of help and we could only talk with the lowest level officials. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest authorities who immediately offered anything we wanted and needed.

That was our first experience with Cuban internationalism. Even though we took up arms, it was not our preferred option. It was the apartheid regime that forced us to take up arms. Our preferred option has always been to find a peaceful solution to the apartheid conflict. The combined struggle of our people in the country, as well as the growing international battle against
apartheid during the 1980’s made possible a negotiated solution to that conflict. The decisive defeat in Cuito Cuanavale changed the status of forces in the region and reduced considerably the capacity of the Pretoria regime to destabilise its neighbours. This fact, along with the struggle of our people within the country proved to be crucial so Pretoria would understand that it had to go to the negotiating table…

It is in this context that we value our friendship with Cuba very, very much. When you, Comrade Fidel, yesterday said that our cause is your cause, I know that that sentiment came from the bottom of your heart and that that is the feeling of all of the people of revolutionary Cuba.

You are with us because both of our organisations, the Communist Party of Cuba and the ANC, are fighting for the oppressed masses to insure that those who make the wealth enjoy its fruits. Your great apostle, Jose Marti, said, and I quote: “With the poor people of this earth, I want to share my fate.”

We in the ANC will always stand with the poor and rightless. Not only do we stand with them, we will ensure sooner rather than later that they rule the land of their birth. That, in the words of the Freedom Charter, the people shall govern. And when that moment arrives it will have been made possible not only by our own efforts, but through the solidarity, support, and encouragement of the great Cuban people.

I must close my remarks by referring to an event of which you all have witnessed. You have witnessed the event in which our Comrade Fidel Castro conferred upon me the highest honour this country can award. I am very much humbled by this award. Because I do not think I deserve it. It is an award that ought to be given to those who have already won the freedom of their people.  [Editor’s Note: At the time of Mandela’s speech, the apartheid state had still not formally relinquished power] But, it is a source of strength and hope that that award is given for the recognition that the people of South Africa stand on their feet and they are fighting for their freedom.  We sincerely hope that in the days that lie ahead we will be proved worthy of the confidence which is expressed in this award.

Long live the Cuban Revolution! [Viva!] Long live Comrade Fidel Castro! [Viva!]

Excerpts from speech by African National Congress president Nelson Mandela at the national ceremony commemorating the Moncada Barracks attack, in Matanzas, Cuba on July 26, 1991. English translation by the Castro Speech Data Base at the University of Texas.