CUBA’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, died Friday aged 90, eight years after stepping down from the presidency of a country he had led for 47 years.
Castro came to power in 1959 at the head of a revolution, and ushered in a Communist one-party state. Reviled and adored in equal measure, there was one place far away from Cuba where he left an enduring mark – Africa.
It came late, and at a point when perhaps Castro himself didn’t expect it. Its genesis and extent remains little studied, and it wasn’t straight forward either.
In Cold War Africa, Cuba lined up alongside the Soviet Union, on the side of radical, Marxist, and an assortment of “progressive” and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist forces and governments – from Cape Verde, present-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the war against Portuguese stubborn colonialism in Mozambique and Angola.
Attitudes towards Cuba remained divided along East-West ideological lines, with “capitalist” “anti-communist” conservative regimes in both Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya; Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi, to King Hassan II’s Morocco deeply hostile, and even hostile.
Other leaders, like Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor, and those in Botswana, avoided getting sucked into taking sides and mostly sat out the Cold War on the fence.
THE 1970s POLITICAL DISASTER
However, as Africa closed the 1970s decade, many things were to change, which were to alter Cuba’s – and Castro’s – standing in Africa.
Barring Botswana and Mauritius, nearly all the rest of the countries in Africa were either under military dictatorships, one-party, or minority white supremacist regimes (South Africa, Zimbabwe [then Rhodesia], and Namibia).
The 1970s “oil crisis” which sent prices sharply up, and the incompetence and brutality of military and one-party governments (whether on the left or right), took their toll. Most of Africa entered 1980s broken and with citizens living a hellish life.
The Soviet Union, a key ally of revolutionary governments in Africa, had launched what was to be a disastrous war in Afghanistan, with an invasion of the country in 1979. Very quickly, it became clear the war was sapping the energies of the Soviet Union, and commitments to African allies began to fall away.
It was a time when the west, “capitalism”, was entering a successful political and intellectual period, starting the same year of the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan adventure with Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister in the UK. And then most decisively, the election of Ronald Reagan as the 40th president of the US a year later.
They ratcheted up the Cold War, and in southern Africa, took the view that the liberation movements, including the African National Congress (ANC) were “terrorist” organisations.
The prospects for the end of apartheid in South Africa and freedom in Namibia seemed to recede considerably in the new Reagan-Thatcher world order.
Emboldened, apartheid South Africa increased support for the reactionary and brutal Renamo rebel movement in Mozambique, and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola.
By the early 1980s, both Samora Machel’s infant FRELIMO government in Mozambique and José Eduardo dos Santos’s MPLA were on their backfeet.
Across the political divide, there had now crept in a widespread collective sense of failure, and even shame, among the elite in Africa. Africa needed something hopeful and new to re-energise “the struggle”, as it was popularly called then, and to look good in the world.
It came partly from political developments, but in a surprise, mostly from the arts – music.
The reggae superstar Bob Marley was becoming all the rage in Africa among the youth, and his music a rallying cry for progressive movements.
In 1979, he released his song “Zimbabwe”.
“Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny,
And in this judgement there is no partiality.
So arm in arms, with arms, we’ll fight this little struggle,
‘Cause that’s the only way we can overcome our little trouble.
Brother, you’re right, you’re right,
You’re right, you’re right, you’re so right!
We gon’ fight (we gon’ fight), we’ll have to fight (we gon’ fight),
We gonna fight (we gon’ fight), fight for our rights!
Natty Dread it in-a (Zimbabwe);
Set it up in (Zimbabwe);
Mash it up-a in-a Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe);
Africans a-liberate (Zimbabwe), yeah…”
Bob Marley performed an independence concert in Zimbabwe in April 1980, one of the most storied concerts of the period in Africa. It cemented his place in popular African political and musical imagination.
Young people started growing dreadlocks, and hopping about and shaking their heads vigorously in nightclubs with lit cigarette lighters aloft, to Marley’s sounds.
At about this time the music of Johnny Clegg, a white South African musician, and his Juluka band, whose material was censored back home, started to be heard and become popular across the concert.
Though very many white South Africans were opposed to apartheid and were in the ANC and other groups, their story was not well known in the rest of the continent. Musicians like Clegg helped to bring that realisation to foreground.
Stevie Wonder threw in his bit in 1980 with “Master Blaster”, singing “…Peace has come to Zimbabwe…”
Collectively, this body of music introduced an accessible new language to talk about liberation and freedom, shorn of the rigid and ideological stricture of “proletariat”, “working class”, “revolutionary vanguard”, in which the anti-imperialist movement had been steeped.
A third way, in which people who were otherwise “anti-communist” could enter into a conversation on the liberation effort, and in which the left could meet with conservatives in Africa without seeming to “sell out,” was fast developing.
-Part Two to follow late Tuesday.