From the 1960s, the nom de guerre “Castro” was popular among freedom fighters in Southern Africa. Today, in Africa as in the Latin-speaking countries and elsewhere, the sons of many offspring of those guerrillas bear the name Fidel, or Fidelis.
That 1960s generation was immensely inspired by Fidel Castro Ruz’s epic leadership of the Cuban Revolution. He represented overthrowing tyranny, confronting imperialism, transforming society, and the historic lessons of international solidarity. Generations since have learned those motivational lessons. Learning from Fidel and even studying in Cuba, they have continued to follow the legendary footsteps — in theory and practice — of one of the foremost revolutionaries of modern times.
His life and legacy are intrinsically bound up with Africa’s destiny — earning him the undying gratitude of its peoples, along with the rest of humanity. In Fidel’s immortal words, after forcing the racist South African military to make its ignominious retreat from Angola after the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988: “The history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale.”
Out of Apartheid
From 1975, Cuban internationalist forces under the direction of Comandante Fidel had helped save the independence of the emergent People’s Republic of Angola from those same racist invaders and the CIA-backed counterrevolutionary bandits. In his prison cell, Nelson Mandela became aware of these historic developments via secret means; he wrote in praise of the Cubans, remarking that “it was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.”
As Cuba continued its assistance to Angola over the following years, the reactionaries finally met their fate at the five-month-long battle for Cuito Cuanavale in 1987–88, which sent them packing. The outcome was that Angola was now free of foreign forces; this was followed by Namibia’s independence from occupation by South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1990, and then freedom for South Africa in 1994. Mandela stated that victory at Cuito Cuanavale “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor and inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.” It can be said that it helped provide the key to unlocking racist rule in the southern part of the continent, alleviating the menacing shadow of apartheid over the entire region.
I had been privileged to have been present in Havana, as a member of a South African Communist Party (SACP) delegation in 1988, when Fidel briefed us in front of a huge topographical map of the southern part of Angola, telling of how that epic Battle of Cuito Cuanavale had been won. I was privileged when, at the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, in Pretoria on March 27, 1994, the greatest approval for a foreign guest by the cheering masses was reserved for the legendary Cuban leader: they chanted in unison, “Fidel! Fidel!” and “Cuba! Cuba!”
In September 1998, I was yet again privileged to escort Fidel on a naval ship out of Cape Town to Robben Island. There he visited Nelson Mandela’s one-time prison cell — and was visibly moved.
On September 4, a few days earlier, he had addressed the South African parliament. He described having dreamed of such an experience, “like a love letter to a sweetheart written thousands of miles away, without knowing how she thinks or what she wants to hear and without even knowing what her face looks like.”
On the same occasion, Fidel reminded us that 461,956 Cuban soldiers fought side by side with Africans for their liberation. He spoke of how “From these African soils, where they worked and fought voluntarily and selflessly, they have only taken back home to Cuba the remains of their fallen comrades and the honor of a duty accomplished.”
The Castro Way
It is the privilege of Southern Africa’s people to have shared trenches, trained and studied in Cuba, and received unstinting aid in countless ways, not only on the battlefields. This includes the aid presently being provided by the gallant Cuban health workers in the struggle against COVID-19. This is the experience of people around the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but, amazingly, also in European countries such as Italy. Cuba continues to send medical professionals to Africa, as to countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. There are more than fifty thousand Cuban doctors worldwide, including in thirty-two African countries.
When we launched our armed struggle in the 1960s, there was a popular song we composed to a calypso beat: “Take the country the Castro way!” By the time freedom and independence came, through bloody struggles, we came to realize so much more about the examples Cuba provided. It provided such an example in people’s living conditions, in health care and education, in housing and social welfare, in overcoming colonial backwardness and inequalities, and in the provision of security for the people and defense of the revolution.
In the enormous global struggle against imperialist domination, exploitation, and racism; military aggression and counterrevolutionary regime change; capitalism’s gargantuan divide between wealth for the privileged few and crushing poverty for billions; horrific diseases such as COVID-19, in the wake of environmental peril; those words, “Take the country the Castro way,” are alive in our hearts. The song inspires hope, motivates united action, and signposts Fidel’s immortal teachings and his vision of the future.
This August 13, on the anniversary of his birth, we, along with the Cuban people and humanity, salute Fidel. He will live on in Africa — as everywhere else — as an everlasting icon of liberation in all its forms. Fidel Lives! Siempre! Venceremos!