BY T.J. FIGUEROA
CAPE TOWN, South Africa - "This is a proud moment for us, to welcome Fidel Castro and thank the Cuban people as a whole," said Andile Vanto, a 21-year-old student who took part in a September 2 march and rally welcoming the Cuban president to Durban, South Africa. "Cuba is a symbol for the whole world of a people who can stand up against American terror."
Castro conducted a state visit to this country September 4 and 5 at the invitation of South African president Nelson Mandela, following the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Durban.
The Cuban president addressed a special sitting of the National Assembly, paid a visit to Nelson Mandela's old cell on Robben Island, held meetings with Mandela and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, was the guest of honor at a state banquet, spoke in Soweto, and held a meeting with Cuban doctors working here.
Castro was accompanied by Cuban foreign minister Roberto Robaina and several members of the Council of State.
The example of the Cuban revolution, and Castro's personal example, made for a popular welcome among millions of South Africans who know of Cuba's internationalist contributions to African freedom struggles, particularly in the fight against the apartheid system of white minority rule.
"Fidel is a symbol of socialism, of people that never give up. It gives us hope that South Africans, who will never give up, can achieve the same thing as the Cubans," said Nokuthula Fakazi, a 23-year-old student at Natal Technikon, at the September 2 march and rally in Durban.
Paulos Ngcobo, provincial secretary for the Congress of South African Trade Unions in KwaZulu-Natal, said simply, "We're over the moon about Castro's visit. Cuba was with us in the dark days. And we're demanding that the U.S. lift its blockade against the people of Cuba."
"This is one of my greatest friends," Nelson Mandela said of Castro as the two presidents greeted a crowd outside the gates of Parliament here September 4.
Thunderous welcome to speech
The Cuban leader spoke to the National Assembly in Cape Town on September 4. The speech - just over an hour with translation - was televised in its entirety that evening throughout the country.
Two parties with a combined total of 16 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly -the Democratic Party and the Freedom Front - announced beforehand that they would boycott the speech.
The Democratic Party, a liberal capitalist party that sat in the apartheid parliament for decades and today defends the social and economic privileges inherited by a small minority, said it was doing so because the Cuban leader is a "dictator." The Freedom Front, led by former apartheid military officers, simply said that it is "anticommunist. We feel Castro does not represent the kind of system we want in our country."
The reaction of the Democratic Party in particular was roundly denounced, even by newspaper editors countrywide. This city's leading morning daily, the Cape Times, wrote in its editorial September 7 that "even if the DP does not like Fidel Castro, it should have been aware that there are millions of South Africans who simply idolize the man... these South Africans, most of them black, feel that Castro and his countrymen have made an invaluable contribution to the freedom we all now enjoy."
Castro received a thunderous welcome from African National Congress MPs and hundreds of people jamming the public galleries, who interrupted his speech with applause more than 30 times. There was an "extraordinary and unprecedented" number of requests for seats in the public gallery, an official reported. Chants of "Cuba, Cuba" and "Fidel, Fidel" boomed through the chamber before and after the speech.
When National Council of Provinces delegate Diphuo Peters began a sentence with the words "Cuito Cuanavale..." she could not finish the sentence - the entire public gallery and ANC MPs gave a roaring ovation. Cuito Cuanavale was the site of the decisive showdown in southeast Angola where, in 1987-88, Cuban volunteer troops, fighting alongside the Angolan military and SWAPO fighters from Namibia, dealt a stunning military blow to invading South African forces from which the apartheid regime never recovered. "Cuba is a model to be emulated by people who are struggling to change things for the better," Peters said.
Meanwhile, members of the National Party, which ran the apartheid regime from 1948 until the first nonracial, democratic elections in 1994, sat in sullen silence through the speech.
Castro took his seat next to Mandela - in the chair once occupied by P.W. Botha, the notorious president of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
Two South Africas: rich and poor
"This promising country, which yesterday was a target of isolation and universal condemnation, can tomorrow be an example of brotherhood and justice," Castro told the National Assembly.
"There are still today two South Africas, which I should not call white South Africa and black South Africa. That terminology should forever be banished if you want to build a multiracial and united country. I prefer to say it this way: two South Africas, the rich and the poor.
"One where the average family receives 12 times the income of the other. One where the children who die before their first year of life are 13 per thousand, the other where 57 die. One where life expectancy is 73 years, the other where it is only 56. One where 100 percent know how to read and write, the other where illiteracy surpasses 50 percent. One that has almost full employment, the other where 45 percent are without work. One where 12 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the land, the other where 80 percent of the population has less than 10 percent.... One that enjoys well being and freedom, the other that has conquered freedom without well being.
"Such a dreadful legacy cannot be changed overnight," Castro remarked. "There is absolutely nothing to be gained by disrupting the production system or squandering the vast material wealth, technical capacities, and productive efficiency created by the noble hands of workers under a cruel and unjust - virtually slave -system. To carry out social changes in an orderly, measured, and peaceful fashion, so that this wealth brings the maximum benefit to the South African people, is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks for human society to achieve."
"I reject demagogy," Castro said. "I would never say a word here to stir up discontent, much less to gain applause and please the ears of the millions of South Africans who are rightly pained that the paradise of equal opportunity and justice for all, dreamed of through long years of struggle, has not yet been achieved."
Many nations, he pointed out, have similar social and economic problems, the result of an unbearable distribution of wealth. "But in no other place like here has the struggle for human dignity awakened such hopes. The contradiction between hopes, possibilities, and priorities is not only a domestic affair for South Africa," but for all the world.
He pointed out that capitalism, colonialism, and slavery had left a horrible legacy for the overwhelming majority in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, but added that it was always the slaves who led the revolt against unbearable conditions.
Cuba's proud record in Africa
"Cuba is just a small island, geographically situated next to a very powerful neighbor," he said. "But we have 5,850 African students in our schools. At the same time, 80,524 Cuban civilians have gone to work in Africa," including 24,714 doctors, dentists, and nurses, as well as tens of thousands of teachers and other professionals.
In the past 30 years, "381,432 soldiers were on duty or fought in Africa, side-by-side with their African brothers for national independence or against foreign aggression," Castro added. "They took home to Cuba only the remains of their fallen comrades and the honor of carrying out their duty," he said to thunderous applause. "This is why we know better and appreciate the human qualities of the sons of Africa, much more than those who colonized and exploited this continent for centuries."
"With deep caring and pain we witness today the fratricidal wars, the economic underdevelopment, the famine, the lack of hospitals and schools, the lack of communications."
The Cuban president said that "an unavoidable and deep economic crisis, perhaps the worst in history, is threatening all of us today. The world, which has become an enormous gambling house, is seeing every day speculation in the range of $1.5 trillion, which has absolutely no relation to the real economy."
The coming general panic
He continued, "The value of the stock in the U.S. stock market has been rising to absurd levels. It was only historical privilege, associated with a set of factors, that made it possible for the wealthy nations to be the only ones in the world to issue the reserve currencies of every central bank in every country."
Castro said that "the value of the reserve world currency," i.e., the U.S. dollar, "has simply become a matter of confidence.... Sooner or later, the world will have to pay the bill.
"The most prosperous nations of southeast Asia have been ruined. Japan, the second world economy, can no longer prevent recession. The yen keeps losing value. The yuan is being sustained not without great sacrifices by China," he said, which would be "dangerously close to the tolerable limit for a country that has conducted an accelerated radical reform...."
"The Asian crisis is coming back," Castro warned. "The economic catastrophe that is emerging in Russia, when that country is trying to build capitalism, is the greatest social and economic failure in history. All that despite enormous economic assistance and the recommendations and advice given to them by the best minds in the West." He pointed out that in Russia, where there are thousands of nuclear warheads, the operators of those missiles haven't been paid in five months.
"No one knows exactly when and how the general panic will be unleashed," Castro said. "Could anyone at this point be certain that there will not be a repetition of the 1929 crash?... It's just that between that time and now there is an enormous difference" in the sums of capital and number of people involved."
The Cuban leader concluded his speech by remarking that he is not a prophet, but that "great crises have always produced great solutions.... I have confidence in the need for humanity to survive."
`We bring no businessmen with us'
Castro visited Soweto, the largest black township in the country, on September 5. He laid a wreath at the memorial for Hector Petersen, the first youth to die on the barricades of the 1976 Soweto rebellion. There he delivered impromptu remarks for about two hours to a crowd of 1,500 people.
"Amandla! [Power!] Castro is coming," shouted the crowd. "This is an occasion that we have been looking forward to for a long time, because this man contributed to our democracy," said Gladys Nkosi.
The Cuban president told the crowd he was not a pacifist in the style of Mahatma Gandhi, because certain ideas are "worth defending with sweat and blood."
"The people who died here" during the 1976 rebellion "died not only for the inhabitants of Soweto, but for the freedom and dignity of the human race," he said.
He noted that recent visits by imperialist heads of state to Africa have been marked by their sheer greed. "They come after the gold and diamonds of Africa, they come after the cheap labor." He pointed out that U.S. president William Clinton had recently visited South Africa with an entourage of about 1,000 people, including a large number of businessmen. "They come in pursuit of profits, to do business, but the Cubans come as selfless friends ... we bring no businessmen with us."
On the final day of his trip, Castro met for two hours with about 325 Cuban doctors and family members. About 400 Cuban doctors are now serving in rural hospitals and clinics across South Africa.
Nkosazana Zuma, South Africa's health minister, accompanied him. The doctors briefed Castro on their living and working conditions. The Cuban president then related his visit to Soweto and reiterated that Cuba's delegation was not present to secure more trade, emphasizing the special relationship that exists between the two countries.
That special relationship, born in struggle, was recalled by the South African president at the state banquet in Castro's honor on September 4. "If today all South Africans enjoy the rights of democracy," Mandela said, "if they are able at last to address the grinding poverty of a system that denied them even the most basic amenities of life, it is also because of Cuba's selfless support for the struggle to free all of South Africa's people and the countries of our region from the inhumane and destructive system of apartheid."
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