Mandela and Cuba: another memory hole

Recognition of the role of Cuba in aiding the ANC whilst the western powers backed apartheid is hardly serviceable in maintaining the conventional Cold War narrative. Hence the media's impressive avoidance of the context of the Castro-Obama handshake and its significance. 

Alex Doherty
21 December 2013

Since his death, western media commentary on the late Nelson Mandela has largely consisted of sanitized depictions of Mandela as a saintly, pacifistic,[i]latter day Gandhi[ii]. A bloodless “kumbaya figure” (in Seamus Milne's memorable words) whose political vision for South Africa extended little further than the extension of the South African franchise. In the days following his death Mandela was eulogised by the most unlikely figures – from those who directly aided the apartheid government, recent heads of state whose actions in the Middle East were harshly condemned by Mandela, to musicians who flouted the cultural boycott of South Africa and politicians recently engaged in efforts to disenfranchise black Americans. Mandela's famous talent (overplayed and uprooted from its strategic context) for forgiveness[iii] has been so effectively exploited by media commentators that the commemoration of his death has become a sort of ethical bath for the rich and powerful in which past sins and inconvenient facts are washed away.

Left critique of the mainstream media's typically atrocious performance has largely centred on the hypocrisy of the media's relaying of unquestioned protestations of admiration for Mandela from those political leaders (past and present) of states that played key roles in propping up the apartheid government in Pretoria and ensuring the survival of a regime, anachronistic as it was cruel, until the last decade of the twentieth century (though as recently detailed on New Left Project the scale of western collusion with the apartheid regime has been underplayed even by these critics). One issue that has not been widely noted is the excising from history of Cuba's role in the defeat of apartheid and the external depredations of the apartheid regime as it sought to maintain the internal system of white supremacist rule by destroying nationalist anti-imperialist forces on its borders. The contrasting roles of the United States and Cuba regarding South Africa were part of a broader pattern in which the United States supported counterrevolutionary forces throughout Africa. As part of that counterrevolutionary struggle South Africa was a valued ally of the United States – particularly regarding the newly independent Angola.

In the post WWII period in Africa, as the European colonial systems slowly disintegrated, the United States and the European colonial powers sought to shape that process so as to maintain access to the resources of the former colonies, preventing the newly independent states from making their exit from the new American-led global economic order, and competing with the Soviet Union for the allegiance of the newly independent states.

As South Africa's neighbour Angola approached independence from Portugal in 1975, the Americans threw their support behind UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola), one of three main political and paramilitary forces that had emerged to oppose Portuguese rule. Initially a Maoist grouping, by the 1980s UNITA had become a force of the far right, receiving crucial support not only from the United States but also apartheid South Africa. In response the Soviets and Cubans had backed the leftist MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola), recognised by most states as the government of Angola (but not by the United States).

The MPLA became a key ally of the ANC - providing the armed wing of the movement with resources, bases and training. Whilst Soviet support for the MPLA was mostly limited to the provision of arms and technical advisors, the Cubans, following South African intervention, dispatched tens of thousands of troops who fought alongside the MPLA against the South African military – achieving a key victory at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. Amongst the objectives of the South Africans at the time was ensuring that UNITA survived in order to prevent the military forces of SWAPO (the South West African People's Organization) threatening South Africa's illegal occupation of Namibia from its bases in Angola.

Whilst depicted as the mere proxies of the Soviets at the time, the present scholarly consensus is that the Cubans' intervention on the continent was undertaken for the Castro regime's own reasons (ranging from access to African resources to sincere ideological opposition to colonialism) and the Cubans frequently clashed with their Soviet allies over their African policy. Whilst one can reasonably argue how disinterested Cuban intervention in Angola and elsewhere in Africa was (Mandela himself viewed the Cuban intervention as a selfless act of solidaristic internationalism) it is clear that Cuba did play a vital role in sustaining the ANC, demoralising the apartheid regime, and inspiring black Africa to believe that the army of the “white giants” could be defeated. In a speech he gave in Havana during his visit to Cuba in 1991 Mandela declared that:

“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 organizations would not have been legalized. 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 marked an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid.”

Given the media's usual depiction of the Cold War as a goodies vs. baddies morality play in which unpalatable facts about western support for quasi-fascist regimes, massacre and genocide,[iv]are largely excluded from the conventional narrative it is hardly surprising that Cuba's role in aiding the overthrow of apartheid (and the west's shameful support for the regime) has also largely vanished down the memory hole.

However, the exclusion of this aspect of the apartheid struggle in media coverage subsequent to Mandela's death reveals an impressive degree of ideological discipline on the part of the media. As was widely reported, at the commemoration of Mandela's death, Barack Obama shook hands with Raoul Castro – the first public meeting between leaders of the United States and Cuba since the Cuban revolution. In their stories on the historic handshake none of the Guardian, the Independent, the Washington Post, the New York Times, BBC online or the Daily Telegraph saw fit to mention Cuba's role in the anti-apartheid struggle – a remarkable omission given the context of the handshake and the opposing historical roles of the two states regarding apartheid (special mention ought to be made for the Canadian Globe and Mail which managed to avoid these facts in spite of otherwise detailing US-Cuban cold war relations).

The media's neglect of the historical context was all the more striking when one considers that Raul Castro was honoured by being just one of five foreign heads of state to make a speech at the state memorial service (quite clearly in recognition of Cuba's role in the struggle to defeat the apartheid regime). The media also failed to note that during his speech the American president did not utter a single word of apology for the United States’ crucial role in supporting the regime (which may even have extended to providing South African security forces with the intelligence that allowed them to arrest Mandela): the media preferred to focus on much more crucial matters, such as the employment of an apparently fake sign language interpreter during Obama's widely lauded, yet typically platitudinous, speech.

The media's careful avoidance of the contrasting Cold War roles of the United States and Cuba regarding South Africa is not of mere academic consequence. As George Orwell understood, control of historical narratives gives elites a powerful grip over public perceptions of present realities and grants those elites greater latitude in their future action. Continued imperialist intervention, military or otherwise, in the so-called developing world by the United States and her allies depends heavily upon the public's belief in the 'basic benevolence'[v] of the western powers. The belief that the United States plays an essentially benign role in world affairs depends in turn upon a highly distorted picture of the historical role of the United States.

One important aspect of this is a childishly manichean depiction of the Cold War as a pure struggle between good and evil (a portrayal that is greatly aided of course by the extremely repressive character of the Soviet bloc). Recognition of the role of Cuba in aiding the ANC whilst the western powers backed apartheid is, of course, hardly serviceable to maintenance of this conventional Cold War narrative. The media's impressive avoidance of the context of the Castro-Obama handshake and of the significance of Castro's speech at the commemoration service is then merely one of countless ways in which history is shaped by the media to serve the powerful and ensure that western control over the developed and developing world continues undisturbed.

We would do well then to remember the real role of Cuba and the United States regarding South Africa, not merely to be honest, nor simply to honour the many Cubans who died in the cause of defeating apartheid, but also to increase the prospects of averting future western interventions in the “Global South” by properly educating the public regarding one of the real Cold War roles of the self-appointed defenders of the free world.


[i] Quite contrary to the facts – Mandela never disclaimed his belief that South Africans had the right to use violent means to resist the regime – including the use of deadly force against the security forces .

[ii] Another historical figure sanitised by the ideological system. Norman Finkelstein recent book on the Indian revolutionary seeks to separate the real Gandhi from the air-brushed simulacra.

[iii] Some left commentators have sought to criticise Mandela, and the ANC more generally, for their abandonment of the ANC Freedom Charter and their eventual acceptance of neoliberal prescriptions that had a devastating impact on the majority of the South African population. Any such critique ought to factor in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances Mandela and the ANC found themselves in the early 90s. With the threat of civil war hanging over the country, with the Washington consensus in world-conquering mode and with the Soviet bloc having collapsed the ANC's room for manoeuvre was extremely limited. Nonetheless it ought to be noted that significant figures in the ANC continue to argue that it may have been possible to mobilise the South African masses to achieve an economic transformation that would have delivered on the promises of the Freedom Charter. Given the forces ranged against Mandela, and the extraordinary sacrifices he made, it may seem churlish to criticise him but it's hard not to ponder Mandela's failure to criticise the ANC's apparent indifference to achieving economic transformation of South Africa after the threat of civil war had long subsided. In an article on Mandela the Guardian's Gary Younge notes that at the time of his death Martin Luther King was a marginalised and despised figure in American society and the project of defanging King's call to justice and transforming him into one of the most popular figures in American history only occurred after his death. The comparable sanitisation and cooptation of Mandela occurred long before he died – which may suggest that he was partially complicit in that process. 

[iv] For instance American support for a host of totalitarian regimes in South and Central America, the American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962, western support for Suharto's genocidal campaign in East Timor, the colossal massacre of progressive forces and ethnic Chinese that preceded it, Western backing for the Khmer Rouge following their ejection from power by America's Vietnamese bête noire amongst many other grisly episodes.

[v] A term coined by the dissident British historian Mark Curtis.

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