When I was in Cuba in 2013, on a Brigade of International Solidarity, surrounded by the state’s paradisiacal vision of the communist island, news broke on 5th December that Nelson Mandela had passed away. For many on the brigade, it broke another attachment to the romantic era of twentieth century resistance that we were all trying to relive.
The death of the great African leader brought memorial after memorial from local Cuban CDRs, and videos of Fidel and Mandela paraded across state television networks. Mandela was celebrated as a martyr to the very Cuban cause of fighting for sovereignty and independence in the face of the ‘invisibility’ of white imperialism. A day of mourning was declared for Madiba then, now nine days of mourning begin for their own revolutionary.
Mandela cornered Fidel in 1991 to demand “… Cuba, which has helped us in training our people, gave us resources to keep current with our struggle, trained our people as doctors, and SWAPO, you have not come to our country. When are you coming?” In front of cameras, Castro seemed pinned to his chair, taken aback by the friendly stature of the South African. He had secured a place in the hearts of Mandela and the African antiapartheid struggle for sending troops to Angola and doctors to South Africa in what Gleijeses called the dual thrust of Cuban internationalism: military aid and humanitarian assistance.
A romantic tale encircles this exchange between Fidel and his “old and revered friend”. Mandela apparently requested that, in return for the Cuban medical help in the construction of post-apartheid South Africa, Cuba accept financial assistance to aid their ‘special period’. Despite the economic horror of 1990s Cuba, Fidel was said to have rejected the assistance on the grounds that the Revolution’s principle of free international health care was more important than any monetary exchange. Mandela persisted, demanding that Fidel help his people with South African investment. Fidel resisted. The leaders’ principles and egos clashed for hours. In the end, Mandela won.
The two emblematic figures of twenty first century resistance have now left the world peacefully. They have also left their countries with as many troubling questions as when they set out on their historic courses from the Moncada barracks and from covert ANC meetings.
Given their friendship, politically, personally and historically, how have the paired icons of resistance left the political landscape of their homelands in the 21st century?
Reports from Cuba describe the grand public remembrances to Castro and reports abroad describe Cuban people’s private indifference. The pure nationalist sensationalism that surrounds Fidel Castro means that many hearts will ache and tears will be shed into the state cameras of Granma. Evermore state-sponsored hoards will be put up of the leader’s face, exclaiming that the father of Cuba will live on.
In immediate post-Madiba South Africa, a mix of nostalgia and fear reigned. Despite being outside of public life for his last decade, “South Africans looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.” According to the African Research Bulletin.
The public’s fears were even reflected in Mandela’s memorial event itself as working class South Africans had to work through the celebrations of their liberator’s life because no public holiday was granted, leaving the event at Soweto’s famous FNB Stadium only half full.
The glass has also been half full for black South Africans since Madiba’s death. “Since apartheid, nothing has changed, there’s just a different face running it and a so-called black elite as a buffer.” Tumiso Tsukudu, entrepreneur and grandson of the late anti-apartheid leader Oliver Tambo told the Guardian in 2014. Institutional racism still reigns in South Africa despite the rule of Mandela’s ANC party whose leader, Jacob Zuma, is ever-surrounded by corruption and sex scandals. Zuma may even be on the brink of a vote of no confidence from his and Mandela’s ANC.
The institution that was set up when Mandela stepped down as president to support peace, human rights and democracy in South Africa has generally avoided any political alliance. To compound the sense of Madiba’s betrayed legacy, a few months ago, the foundation released a statement announcing “It is painful for us at the Nelson Mandela Foundation to bear witness to the wheels coming off the vehicle of our state,”.
South Africa’s twentieth century icon’s delicate legacy has arguably been tarnished by his ANC inheritors. Fidel’s legacy is in safer familial hands but the communist government faces equally monumental challenges in adapting to the modern political landscape while following Castro’s footsteps.
A new generation is growing up in Cuba that lacks nostalgia towards the glory days of the Revolution. They are the demographic that Fidel Castro tried to oppress culturally and legally, some listen to North American EDM, some sport the star spangled banner on their t-shirts, many more demand basic rights to freedom of speech. They cry out for globalisation to reach Cuba and their cries are heard more and more .“People are more frustrated, more tired, and so they are more engaged. It is like there’s a small hole [in the power of the regime] and as that hole increases things move faster.” Outspoken Cuban rights activist Antonio Rodiles said recently.
Internationalism was Fidel’s overarching ambition and western globalisation has engulfed it.
Mandela at the turn of the 21st century declared “Where globalization means, as it so often does, that the rich and powerful now have new means to further enrich and empower themselves at the cost of the poorer and weaker, we have a responsibility to protest in the name of universal freedom.” Fidel’s legacy in Cuba will have to be enacted within the globalising narrative that Mandela spoke of and that the Cuban people demand.
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When it was announced to us that Nelson Mandela had passed away, the international brigade was on a tour of the monument dedicated to Che Guevara in Santa Clara. As the news was whispered around the ‘brigadistas’, a heavy Cuban accent read Che’s final letter to Fidel. The fierce double impact of two freedom fighters passing away in what seemed like the same instant left our crowd of nostalgic socialist tourists in fits of tears.
This was three years ago, the 21th century had already well and truly begun but we were still hanging on to the figures that helped give hope to to the last century. Now one more historic figure has left, leaving this generation to answer the new daunting questions of a new political era.