By Atilio Boron

The death of Nelson Mandela has precipitated a torrent of interpretations on his life and work, all of which present him as a disciple of pacifism and a kind of Mother Teresa of South Africa. This is an essentially incorrect, and premeditated, image, promoted to obscure the fact that after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a strategy of armed struggle and sabotage of enterprises and important economic projects, but without endangering human life.

Mandela toured diverse African countries in search of economic and military aid to sustain this new tactic of struggle. He was detained in 1962 and, shortly afterward, sentenced to life imprisonment, 25 years of which he spent relegated to a maximum security prison, in a cell measuring 2×2 meters. Only as a result of formidable international pressure to attain his release, these conditions improved in the last two years of his detention.

Thus, Mandela was not a “worshipper of bourgeois legality,” but an exceptional political leader whose strategy and tactics of struggle varied as the conditions under which his battles were waged changed. It is said that he was the man who ended the odious South African apartheid regime, which is a half truth.

The other half of the merit goes to Fidel and the Cuban Revolution, which by intervening in the civil war in Angola, sealed the fate of the racists, defeating the troops of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), the South African army and two Angolan mercenary armies, organized and financed by the United States through the CIA. Thanks to Cuba’s heroic cooperation, which once again demonstrated the noble internationalism of the Cuban Revolution, Angolan independence was maintained, laying the bases for the subsequent emancipation of Namibia and delivering a coup de grace to South African apartheid.

For that reason, after learning about the crucial battle of Cuito Cuanavale, on March 23, 1988, Mandela wrote from prison that the outcome of what he called the African Stalingrad “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid.” The defeat of the racists and their U.S. mentors was a mortal blow to the South African occupation of Namibia and precipitated the beginning of negotiations with the ANC which, shortly thereafter, would demolish the racist South African regime, the joint work of those two giant statesmen and revolutionaries.

Years later, in the 1995 Cuban-South Africa Solidarity Conference, Mandela affirmed, “The Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid…We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.” This is a good reminder for those who yesterday and today talk of the Cuban “invasion” of Angola.

Cuba paid an enormous price for this noble act of international solidarity which, as Mandela noted, was the turning point of the struggle against racism in Africa. From 1975 to 1991, close to 450,000 Cuban men and women served in Angola, risking their lives. Over 2,600 died fighting to defeat the racist regime of Pretoria and its allies. The death of the extraordinary leader who was Nelson Mandela provides an excellent opportunity to honor their battle and, additionally, the internationalist heroism of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution.