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Cuba and the struggle for democracy in South AfricaThe revolution in Cuba, culminating in Fidel Castro’s seizure of power on 1 January 1959, was from the beginning based on a non-racial ethos, and revolutionary Cuba was an early opponent of apartheid and racial segregation. Already in the 1960s, Che Guevara provided support for the liberation movement in the Congo, and in the 1970s Cuba helped defend Agostinho Neto’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against aggression by the US and its agents, Zaire and South Africa. At the first Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade in September 1961, Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado denounced apartheid. In 1960, Cuba began to receive students from the Republic of Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Mali, and in 1963 Cuba sent a team of medics to newly liberated Algeria. Perhaps Cuba’s most sustained support was for the Angolan MPLA when it was locked in a struggle against South African troops.
Cuba’s war against South Africa and its allies (the National Front for the Liberation of Angola [FNLA] and National Uinion for the Total Independence of Angola [UNITA], supported by the USA and Zaire) occurred in a few stages. When they failed in this objective (at battles at Quifangodo, Cabinda, Ebo and other sites) during 1976, they continued a campaign of destabilisation after independence. South African forces, under the command of General Constand Viljoen, began moving north from the border, and secured the Caleque and Ruacana dams, 30km inside Angolan territory. The FNLA and UNITA made several attempts to attain these objectives (see timeline for details).
Another SADF unit, called Foxbat, flew to Silva Porta, Savimbi’s headquarters, bringing armoured vehicles and other materiel in late October. On 23 October 1975 FNLA troops attacked Morro de Cal and pushed the MPLA and Cuban forces to Quifangodo. A day before the announcement of independence on 10 November 1975, FNLA troops, together with Portuguese and Zairean troops, attacked FAPLA positions, unsuccessfully. By 6pm on 10 November, the Portuguese lowered their flag and announced that sovereignty had been transferred to the Angolan people, but neglected to say that the MPLA would be in government. The MPLA and their Cuban advisors were faced with conflicts on various fronts, but Cabinda was a territory that was of economic and strategic importance for the future of the country. Meanwhile, the Zulu Column pushed forward from Catangue, Benguela and Lobito, headed to Luanda via Novo Redondo. The Zulu Column was set to take Porto Amboim and then divide into two, with one column headed for Luanda and the other for Dondo, the source of Luanda’s power supply.
A series of battles took place from 8 November to mid-December in the Ebo area, but Cuban commander Arguelles used strategies to stop the South African advance. On 23 November, the SADF tried to cross a bridge from Ebo to Gabela, but came under fierce attack, losing 30 men, with twice as many being wounded. Cuban President Fidel Castro travelled to Guinea-Conakry to meet with President Agostinho Neto, Sekou Toure of Guinea and Luis Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. Ten days later, on 25 March, Botha announced in Parliament that South Africa would pull out all its troops by 27 March because it had been guaranteed that the hydroelectric facilities in Cunene would not be attacked. The defeat of the South Africans saw the US government rethink its policies regarding Southern Africa. Nonetheless, the defeat proved to be just one chapter in a saga that would continue until the fall of apartheid. In August 1981 the South Africans, using a force of 15,000 troops, again moved into Cunene province, ostensibly to attack SWAPO bases.
In June 1983, UNITA forces attacked Cangamba, a village which was home to Angolan and Cuban forces. Towards the end of 1983, the South Africans launched Operation Askari, and attacked Sumbe with 1,500 UNITA forces in tow. In May 1985, a small South African unit engaged with FAPLA forces in Cabinda, but they were routed, and their leader, Captain Winan Petrus du Toit, was captured. When FAPLA forces mounted an offensive against UNITA to retake Mavinga, Savimbi’s base, they were halted 20km from their target by UNITA forces, which were reinforced by the South African Buffalo Battalion. The Soviets had advised the Angolans to launch an offensive against Savimbi in Mavinga, and they provided modern arms to FAPLA to crush UNITA. The village of Cuito Cuanavale is situated west of the Cuito Cuanavale river, and three Angolan brigades were based in an arc to the east of the river, connected to the west by a bridge. With the South Africans in an increasingly threatening position, new Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos asked the Cubans for further reinforcements to complete the operation and avert defeat.
The Cuban reinforcements carrying materiel set out on 23 November 1987, and established the Southern Front General Staff, with General Leopoldo Cintra Frias in command. On 13 January, the South Africans launched a massive attack on the east side of the Cuito Cuanavale river. The South Africans retreated, leaving behind seven Olifant tanks and various other armoured vehicles. The South Africans, increasingly outmanoeuvred, launched an attack on 25 January, which was repelled. Still, they continued to mount attacks even as they retreated, and the MiGs were ordered to take out the South Africans’ G5 and G6 cannons.
Meanwhile, the Cuban-Angolan forces, together with SWAPO combatants, began an offensive towards the Namibian border. By June the Cuban Angolans were 50km from the Namibian border, and the South Africans were forced to the negotiating table. Various meetings took place to bring an end to the hostilities, the first in July 1987, between Angola and the US, just as the attack on Cuito was beginning. From 9th to 11th March 1988, and 17th to 18th March, tripartite talks took place in Luanda. While Cuba was the central actor in defending Angola from South African military aggression, the tiny island nation also provided other forms of support in the struggle against apartheid: diplomatic, economic, ideological, moral and psychological. From 1959, when the Cuban revolution brought Fidel Castro’s Communist Party to power, the Cubans supported the anti-apartheid movement in diplomatic interventions at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), UN and other forums.

In 1977, Cubans began training African National Congress (ANC) cadres at Nova Catengue in Angola, instructing them in guerrilla warfare.
Joe Modise, the head of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s military wing, requested the assistance of the Cubans at meetings in Lusaka and Harare in 1987.
The South African Communist Party (SACP) had established relations with the Cubans from the 1970s.
In response to all these requests, Cuba delivered arms to MK throughout the period from 1987 to 1989. The ANC established a diplomatic office in Havana in December 1978, and in 1994 it became the official South African embassy in Cuba. The Cubans also established schools for South African and other African youth, with the first African students arriving in 1977. Cuba participated in important anti-apartheid conferences, notably a conference on sanctions held in Paris from 20th to 27th May 1981, and another from 16th to 20th June 1981, also held in Paris, called the International Conference on Sanctions Against South Africa.
When the Cubans awarded one of their highest honours, the Order of Playa Giron, to Nelson Mandela in 1984, Alfred Nzo went to Havana to accept the award on Mandela’s behalf.
In September 1987, a tripartite meeting took place in Moscow, with South Africa represented by Oliver Tambo, Cuba by Jorge Risquet, and the Soviets by Anatoli Dobrynin. On 7 January 1987, the Cubans established the Cuban Anti-Apartheid Committee (CAAC), to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the ANC. On 25 July 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Cuba, with throngs of people giving him a huge reception.
On 26 July 1991 Mandela attended a massive rally to celebrate the Attack on the Moncada Barracks. Undertaking a census is a massive exercise and involves collecting, compiling, and analysing demographic, economic and social data about all persons living in a country. Previous censuses merely estimated the numerical size of each population group as defined by the Population Registration Act of 1950.
It is no surprise to read Castro’s many pronouncements against racism, which he considered one of the central challenges of the new society the Communist Party sought to create.
Cuba’s military engagement in Angola kept the apartheid state in check, foiling its geopolitical strategies and forcing it to concede defeat at Cuito Cuanavale, and ultimately forcing both PW Botha and FW de Klerk to the negotiating table. This support continued until the 1980s, when the aggressors were forced to back down, leading to the liberation of the entire subcontinent.
By 1999 more than 28,000 African students had graduated from educational institutions in Cuba, and more than 76,000 Cubans had served in Africa in some capacity or other. This intervention was crucial for the entire subcontinent, whose peoples were held in subjection by an unholy alliance between a racist regime (South Africa), a superpower (the USA), and a corrupt dictator (Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko). Despite several setbacks during the later 1970s and early 1980s, they began their most massive drive to oust the MPLA in 1987 when the two sides fought a colossal battle at Cuito Cuanvale. Deploying a scorched earth policy, they took over the towns of Pereira de Eca and Rocadas by 20 October. By 28 October they took the port of Mozamedes from Portuguese troops, who abandoned the port. A major battle took place at Quifangodo, where 850 Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) troops, 200 Katangese and 88 Cubans faced an onslaught by the FNLA, Zairean mercenaries and South African Defence Force (SADF) troops. Movements of FLEC and Zairean troops indicated that they were about to attack the enclave as independence loomed, and on 8 November the attack began. The Cubans organised an ambush 24km south of Novo Redondo, and retreated to Novo Redondo itself to reinforce a defensive position.
On 16 December FAPLA forces addressed international media and presented four South African soldiers as proof that South Africa was engaged in a war within Angola, a fact that had been suppressed inside South Africa and was not acknowledged by international media and governments such as the US. On 10 January, Lobito and Benguela fell, followed by Sa de Bandeira on 16 January and Mozamedes the next day.
Some 3,000 troops in 60 military vehicles withdrew from Ruacana, the site of the Cunene dam, blowing up the 900m Rocada bridge as they left. South Africa would continue to make attempts to destabilise the Angolan government’s rule. By 2 August, 6,000 UNITA soldiers were poised to deliver a decisive blow, but they were stopped by heavy air bombardments, and by Cuban reinforcements that arrived on 11 August. During interrogation, he revealed that they had been ordered to destroy oil facilities in the enclave. The FAPLA troops were forced to retreat to Cuito Cuanavale, situated 200km south-east of Menongue, at the limit of the Cuban line. In July 1987, as part of Operation Saluting October, FAPLA troops began marching to Mavinga.
Cuba responded by sending tens of thousands of troops to help the Angolans, at the risk of Cuba being destabilised by the Americans. An advance party of Cuban advisers and technical staff moved to Cuito Cuanavale, which was under attack from South African and UNITA forces. On 14 January, three South African and six UNITA battalions launched another fierce attack, breaking through a gap between the 21st and 59th Angolan Brigades.
On 20 January, they destroyed the bridge using unmanned aircraft, and mounted a massive attack using Olifant tanks, and Eland, Ratel and Casspir armoured cars. With 40,000 Cubans, 30,000 Angolans and 1,000 Namibians, using 1000 tanks, 1,600 anti-aircraft weapons and artillery, as well as 1,000 armoured vehicles, they moved south, engaging in the first skirmish on 4 May, when they ambushed a battalion of the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF), inflicting 30 casualties. The Cubans proposed that the US and South Africa observe UN resolution 435, in return for which Cuban troops would withdraw to the north of the 13th Parallel. These were continued in Cairo on 24th and 25th June, at which the South Africans proved obstructive to any agreement.
After SWAPO won the first election in Namibia on 21 March 1991, the last Cuban troops returned home on 25 March 1991.
After the camp was bombed by the South African Air Force, the camp was moved to the Quibaxe area of Kwanza Norte province, where ANC cadres were trained to infiltrate South Africa.
SACP chief Joe Slovo held increasingly frequent meetings with the Cubans from 1986 onwards.
Headed by Alex la Guma, the office was extremely active throughout the anti-apartheid period. Oliver Tambo was given the same award in March 1986, and was accompanied by Thabo Mbeki and Gertrude Shope when he went to receive the award.
Joe Slovo, who also accompanied the South African delegation, later held talks with Risquet, and revealed that he had disagreed with some Soviet academics’ perceptions of the state of the anti-apartheid struggle. Although the Cubans had played a larger part in the general anti-apartheid movement, and had kept many aspects of its involvement from the eyes of the international community, the country’s leaders decided that the time had come to broaden their support with the establishment of the CAAC. As Mandela was driven from Jose Marti International Airport to the El Laguito protocol house, Cubans lined the 20km street.

Cubans paid tribute to the South African leader, who was the first speaker to address them, followed by Castro. In the north Africa is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Gibraltar, in west by the Atlantic Ocean, in south and south east by the Indian Ocean, and on its north eastern coast by the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. However, information collected in the Apartheid era is uneven and unreliable especially with regard to the African population.
Speaking at the 19th General Assembly of the UN in New York in December 1964, Guevara pointed to the UN’s failure to act against apartheid. South Africa, in fighting the MPLA, was willing to go to war because it saw in the MPLA the demise of apartheid rule in South Africa and Namibia.
Seeing Agostinho Neto’s MPLA as a communist movement that would alter the geopolitical balance in the region and help bring the downfall of the apartheid regime, the South Africans did all they could to displace the MPLA before independence was announced.
A temporary government consisting of leaders from the three movements and Portugal was to be established by 31 January 1975. UNITA was operating in the central and southern regions, while the MPLA occupied 12 of the country’s 16 provinces by September, but had a precarious hold over these territories as FNLA and UNITA forces continued to try to take over as much territory as they could in order to secure political dominance by 11 November.
Called Operation Savannah, the plan was to destabilise the MPLA regions ahead of 11 November, when Angola would achieve independence.
On 2 and 3 November 1975, FAPLA and Cuban troops were confronted by the Zulu Column in Benguela, and tried to defend the town of Catangue.
More than 345 FNLA troops were killed and more were wounded, and General Roos ordered a retreat of his artillerymen. The new state was not allowed to begin anew, as forces allied to South Africa continued to challenge the new regime. A thousand FAPLA troops and 232 Cubans defended Cabinda, and by 12 November they launched an offensive that sent the aggressors to Zaire in retreat. The ambush succeeded in slowing down the Zulu Column, but after heavy fighting they took Novo Redondo by 13 November. However, other SADF units mounted attacks and took Morros de Tongo, and moving east they took Cariango, Gungo, and Tari. The four South African soldiers were also presented at an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit, which announced that the OAU would grant official recognition to the People’s Republic of Angola.
On 4 May 1978, the SADF attacked a camp in Cassinga, 210km inside Angola, which gave refuge to more than 3,000 Namibian refugees. After some successes against UNITA, the South Africans launched a counter-offensive, Operation Moduler, using a contingent of 9,000 troops.
The South African attack on 13 January, a rainy day, was launched with the expectation that the Angolans would be unable to use their MiG fighter planes to help the ground troops. They moved to surround the 59th Brigade, as a prelude to surrounding all three brigades in the east, and securing the bridge to the west. At a third meeting on 28th and 29th January 1988, the Angolans and Cubans (represented by Jorge Risquet) demanded that the US end its support for UNITA. In May 1990 Chris Hani, chief of the General Staff of MK, asked the Cubans to help train officers for the post-apartheid army. On 10 June 1986, he met with Jorge Risquet, where the pair analysed the internal situation in South Africa.
The trio held talks with Cuban leaders to find ways to make the country’s aid to the ANC more effective. One of its first initiatives was to propose that the University of Havana grant Nelson Mandela an honorary doctorate.
However, because of limited resources at the Department of Statistics South Africa (SSA), the interval period was extended to 10 years. The forthcoming 2011 Census is part of the 2010 round of African censuses aimed at generating data about the continent, which will assist governments with planning processes, policy formulations and further development. Legislation such as the Native Areas Amendment Bill and the Group Areas Act skewed official statistics and grossly underestimated the number of people living in cities amongst other things. Between 1995 and 2002 the number of learners in grade 1 dropped by 23 per cent despite the population increasing by an estimated 6 million. Cuba supported the armed struggles of liberation movements of South Africa, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique.
In fighting the South Africans, the Cubans were thus fighting for the liberation of Angolans, Namibians, and South Africans. Elections were to be held before the official proclamation of independence on 11 November 1975 and the withdrawal of Portuguese troops would take place by the end of February 1976. After fierce clashes, the Cubans and Angolans were forced out of Benguela and Lobito, leaving the Zulu Column determined to march to Luanda. Four bridges were destroyed, preventing the South Africans from advancing to Quibala, where 200 Cubans and 400 MPLA troops dug in to defend a 150km stretch. However, the weather cleared, and the MiGs were used to attack South African positions, using 32 tons of bombs in 22 missions. A small unit of Cubans, with seven tanks, managed to stop their advance, and the South Africans failed to take the bridge. In the last attack, they retreated in haste after suffering heavy losses, leaving behind various military vehicles, including three Olifant tanks. On 27 June SADF forces were again ambushed, with 20 men from the 32nd Buffalo Battalion killed.
This year, in South Africa, approximatly 156 000-field workers have been recruited and they will be distributing three different questionnaires to the public enquiring about households, transient and tourist hotel and institutions. The above examples are indicative of the types of information that can be gleaned from censuses.
The clash in Quifangodo proved to be a major defeat for the FNLA, Ziarean, and South African bloc. Cuban troops based 15km south of the town made their way to stem the attack, but they were hindered by land mines and attacks from the South African Air Force.
The Cubans lost 14 men and six tanks, but the three Angolan brigades were able to retreat out of harm’s way. Also in 1989, Slovo attended a meeting at the Cuban embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, requesting arms and ammunition, among other things. Despite the obstacles, they managed to arrive in time to save many of the refugees from certain death. Census surveys enable the Government to formulate policies of good governance and ensure social justice.

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