The deployment of Cuban water engineers must be embraced as part of our proud history of South Africans and Cuban solidarity and cooperation


By: Carl Niehaus*

We must never forget the critical role that Cuba played in our liberation struggle. Especially in our Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) training camps in Angola and elsewhere. Cuban military instructors trained our MK cadres in counter insurgency and conventional warfare. Cuban doctors (both medical doctors, and psychiatrists) took care of the well-being of our cadres. Without such care many more of our cadres would have succumbed to the harsh conditions in the MK training camps.

Cuban commissars also played a major role in the ideological preparation of our MK cadres. It is true that a liberation soldier without politics will become a thug and a killer. The Cuban commissars that were deployed in our MK training camps helped to prevent that.

We must also never forget the absolutely critical role that Cuban commanders, soldiers and military hardware played in successfully resisting the 1987 incursion of the SADF into Angola, under the command of General Constand Viljoen. They made all the difference in stopping the incursion, and decisively defeating the SADF and UNITA at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale

In fact Cuito Cuanavale was a decisive turning point (a true watershed moment) for the fortunes of the whole of Southern Africa, in the battle against the apartheid regime. Thousands of Cuban soldiers were deployed in a military operation that costed Cuba millions of Dollars. More than ten thousand Cuban soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, and laid down their lives, thousands of kilometers away from home for our liberation. President Fidel Castro and Cuba demanded nothing in return.

Madiba acknowledged this when he was released from prison, also in sofar as Cuba having been the first foreign country that he visited after his release from prison.

When the Western European countries and the United States of America (USA) – in their usual arrogant and prescriptive manner – complained about South Africa’s close ties with Cuba, Madiba rejected their complaints with contempt. He told President Bill Clinton to “go jump in the pool” and in his famous 21 June 1990 New York Town Hall interview washed Ted Koppel’s head for wanting to dictate to us about who should be our friends.

The cooperation agreements between South Africa and Cuba were personally concluded between President Mandela and President Fidel Castro. The highest profile of these were the hundreds of South African students who were trained as doctors in Cuba. However, not only doctors were/are trained, South African students in many other academic disciplines were, and continue to be trained in various academic disciplines.

The recent assistance of Cuban medical doctors in assisting in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, through the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade (HRIMB) (popularly known as the Army of the White Gowns), was a logical continuation of this revolutionary cooperation between our countries.

Similarly is the case of Cuban water engineers coming to our assistance. Minister Sisulu is absolutely correct to have engaged the Cuban engineers. It fits in with the continuing relations of revolutionary solidarity, support and cooperation between our two countries.

It is evident that White Monopoly Capital (WMC), and their supporters/agents are not happy with this, and have launched a propaganda campaign to undermine, and discredit the cooperation between our two countries. The reactionary attack by Chris Campbell, CEO of the white dominated Consulting Engineers of South Africa (CESA), on Minister Sisulu for deploying 24 Cuban water engineers must be seen in this context.

It is ridiculous to complain about South Africa paying very reasonable rates for the services that the Army of the White Gowns, and others (such as Cuban water engineers), are providing in our country. Cuba has established it’s bona fides over and over again. As I have pointed out, especially during the protracted and vicious war against the apartheid regime in Angola.

Minister Sisulu explained the role of the Cuban water engineers clearly, in so far as that they will be deployed to work in the rural areas, “where there has not been water, where nobody has come forward to say ‘we can help you here’ “. She furthermore pointed out that they were not in SA to take jobs but to share experience and impart technical skills to SA water engineers.

She told a media briefing of the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, where the Cuban water engineers were welcomed, that few of our own engineers opt to go work in the rural areas because they have families, they have preferences of where to work.

Minister Sisulu said: “Where we suffer most are in the rural areas and the Cuban engineers who come here know that they are coming to a hardship situation, they are coming to help us in the rural areas, where there has not been water, where nobody has come forward to say ‘we can help you here”.

This was was also confirmed by Lazaro Martinez Gonzalez, one of the Cuban water engineers deployed in our country. He underscored that his team was in the country to serve our people, and gave an assurance that the engineers were well disciplined, professional and adequately qualified.

Gonzalez said in an interview with Independent On Line (IOL): “We are committed to working very closely with our South African sisters and brothers, while we impart our knowledge and expertise in the field of water. We come in the spirit of immense humanity and solidarity”.

For Minister Sisulu to be attacked for drawing on Cuban expertise and continuing solidarity is outrageous, and she must be defended by all of us who continue to be true revolutionaries.

* Ambassador Carl Niehaus is an ANC veteran, a member of the NEC of Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), and National Spokesperson of MKMVA.

He wrote this article in his personal capacity.