THE first part of this series on Cuba’s revolutionary former leader Fidel Castro, who died Friday, and Africa, reported that in the early years he was regarded by many on the continent with suspicion as a dangerous communist.
However that begun to change, with the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 and global musical superstars like Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder, joining the liberation conversation with their songs, and begin to open new ways of discussing the fight for freedom, in ways that brought a wider group of Africans with varying ideological persuasions together.
And it was also a time when the Soviet Union, the anchor East power, was beginning to wobble, with its disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, at a time when a group of inspired leaders like Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were ascendant.
In Africa, a sense of isolation and humiliation descended, and Cuba remained almost alone as the country willing to pay a price to stand with progressive groups and governments:
WITH the wave that followed the music-fuelled celebration of Zimbabwe’s independence, came a need by Africans to feel good after 10 years in which there was little to cheer about.
However, the good news was hard to come by, in addition to other things, because at the start of the 1980s the horrid Ethiopian famine kicked everything off international news. In the end anything between 400,000 to one million people are estimated to have died.
The Mengistu Haile Marian military junta in Ethiopia was a hardline Marxist regime, and its haplessness in the face of the famine, was to accelerate its fall in 1991 to rebels led by Meles Zenawi.
The Ethiopia famine, however, gave birth to the now much-reviled “live aid” concert phenomenon. But 31 years ago, the current cynicism would have seemed insane.
BOB GELDOF & PAUL SIMON
In July 1985 Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, organised simultaneous “live aid” concerts to raise money for the starving in Africa, particularly Ethiopia. It raised more than three times the target of £10 million.
Times and sensibilities change, but at the time the “live aid” concerts, and musicians like Bob Marley, opened up spaces that allowed a more diverse group of Africans to engage with the problems on the continent, and to see things like apartheid as a “humanistic” or “ubuntu” problem, not cast in the old ideological strait jacket. It was important in building support for these countries.
Another phase in this music-led political shift came in 1987 with Paul Simon’s controversial “Graceland” tour of South Africa.
Simon travelled to South Africa to record the album with local musicians, ignoring an international boycott set in place by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee.
However, a concert across the border in Zimbabwe, with musicians as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela, had an unexpected effect.
It introduced to Africa and the world the South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But it also advanced further the idea of multiracial cooperation, ideas of multiracial societies in liberated southern African countries, and different thinking about how to craft pro-democracy coalitions. (Simon was one of the first international artists to perform in South Africa after the end of apartheid, at the invitation of Nelson Mandela).
While art and new forms of demanding or discussing liberation had brought broader cross-ideological attention on apartheid, politically the battle against it seemed futile.
With its superior technological edge, and rivals on the continent weakened by brutal and inept dictatorships, South Africa attacked targets in Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, and occasionally Botswana, with impunity.
Then in 1985, perhaps the biggest political moral force in Africa at the time, Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere, retired. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU’s) influential Liberation Committee was headquartered in Tanzania. Nyerere was also the leader of the Frontline States in the liberation struggle against white-ruled southern Africa.
There was unease about who would fill his boots.
To compound matters, in October 1986, in what was believed to be sabotage by apartheid South Africa, Mozambique’s leader Samora Machel died when his presidential aircraft crashed near the Mozambique–South Africa border.
The sense of helplessness and humiliation was palpable.
Even anti-communists who didn’t sympathise with the leftist regimes in southern Africa, felt their pride as Africans injured by South African impunity.
By now it was becoming clear that the Soviet Union was seriously bleeding out and would not shore up its allies in Africa as it used to do in the past.
And that is when it happened.
After Angola and Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975, and Zimbabwe shook off white supremacist rule in 1980, they allowed South African anti-apartheid groups to establish military and political bases on their territories.
So, where previously only Tanzania and Zambia offered sanctuary to SA liberation movements, now the frontline states expanded considerably.
With its support for Renamo and Unita, and regular attacks, South Africa, with its superior military might made Mozambique and Angola to pay a high price.
Apartheid forces wreaked so much havoc on Mozambique that, in 1984, Maputo signed the Nkomati Accords with Pretoria, under which each country would no longer support the other country’s opposition movements.
Then South Africa turned its full attention to Angola and invaded.
With its back to the wall, Angola called upon Cuba for help. Fidel Castro obliged, sending in thousands of troops and heavy weapons.
After nearly four years of war, apartheid South Africa’s Waterloo came in 1988 in the tiny town of Quito Canavale in southeastern Angola.
BATTLE OF CUITO CANAVALE
The battle of Cuito Canavale is considered easily the biggest military confrontation in modern Africa since World War II.
The South Africans presented the outcome as a total victory, and Cuba and Angola too claimed the annihilation of apartheid forces.
In end, the mighty South African military had at least, for the first time, been battled to a draw.
Humbled, the apartheid regime was forced to begin peace talks with Angola, and subsequently move toward a transition to democracy at home.
It withdrew from Angola and shortly after, Namibia, with the latter gaining independence in 1990.
Without Cuito, perhaps democracy wouldn’t have arrived in South Africa in 1994 and most of these developments would have taken more years.
That was a time when viral videos didn’t happen on the internet, because there was no internet. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two “viral” VHS videos in Africa that nearly every pan-Africanist, progressive, leftists, or just plain “proud African” who took themselves seriously, had.
One was of Castro describing the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in rather effusive fashion, with him at one point gesticulating to show how Cuban firepower “shook the ground like an earthquake”. Snippets of it can be seen in footage on YouTube about the political dynamics that were set off by the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
The other, was the 1987 Paul Simon concert in Harare – and the real fascination there being Black Mambazo.
When the Soviet Union was enfeebled, when Africa was on its knees after a bad decade, and all that was on screens all over the world were starving children, at a time when it needed something to feel proud about, it got it in Cuito Cuanavale. “Fideri”, as many on the continent called him then, had delivered.
Some 4,300 Cubans died in African conflicts, half of them in Angola. The sacrifice didn’t go unnoticed.
Many, who wouldn’t have bothered, or didn’t care about all the revolutionary exploits associated with Castro on the continent, loved him – even if begrudgingly – for it.
*Most of this story is from notes the author made as a student and later young journalist about the Africa that he witnessed over 15 years.