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Mandela’s fierce loyalty to one of Africa’s greatest friends

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

By Mark P. Fancher
Special to the Michigan Citizen

A little more than a year after Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years of confinement, he traveled to Cuba where he was received as the honored guest of Fidel Castro and greeted by adoring throngs. Mandela praised Cuba’s revolution and characterized it as “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”

This has bewildered many who came to know Mandela as a pragmatic politician who left the revolutionary path he walked before entering prison and instead steered South Africa into the mainstream of western commerce and diplomacy. The reasons for Mandela’s love for Fidel Castro can be found largely in events that occurred in Africa’s southwest region only a few years before the Cuban visit.

In 1987, Angola was governed by bitter enemies of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Sandwiched between Angola and South Africa is Namibia, which at the time was controlled by South Africa and known as “South West Africa.” The apartheid regime feared the capacity of Angola’s anti-apartheid government to allow Namibian freedom fighters to use Angolan territory to launch cross-border attacks against South African troops. To destabilize the Angolan government, the apartheid regime supported opportunistic armed Angolan insurgents. The U.S. had also supported them as part of its Cold War maneuvering.

The Angolan civil war reached a decisive moment when Angola’s army was pinned down in the town of Cuito Cuanavale by both insurgents and South African military forces. In desperation, Angola turned to Cuba and made a modest request for assistance. Fidel Castro responded immediately by providing far more than the Angolans requested. He sent thousands of Cuban soldiers, artillery, tanks, aircraft and much more. What followed was one of the largest military conflicts to occur on African soil. When the smoke cleared the apartheid regime was defeated and the stage was set for the negotiation of Namibia’s independence. During his visit to Cuba, Mandela declared: “…(T)he defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today.”

One condition for Namibia’s independence was the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. Castro withdrew his soldiers, but he continued to send brigades of physicians to Angola and other African countries. Mandela was favorably overwhelmed by all of this. He asked: “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?”  When his praise for Cuba was challenged by critics he responded: “The people of South Africa and the ANC are entitled to have our own friends and allies … and in this particular case, Cuba is our friend.”

Thus, to truly honor Mandela, every African and person of African descent worldwide must follow his example by remaining grateful to Fidel Castro and the people of his country even in the face of the continuing expressions of hostility toward the Cuban leader from many who never had a kind word even for Mandela until after his death.

Mark P. Fancher is an attorney who writes frequently about military conflicts in Africa. He can be contacted at

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