Cuba, SA and the water engineers - Solidarity

Report notes that most neighbourhoods in Havana only have water for two hours every five days

Solidarity releases report on SA’s relationship with Cuba

6 May 2021

Solidarity today released a report on the South African government’s past with its Cuban counterparts. This comes after Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, earlier this month welcomed the arrival of 24 Cuban engineers in the country to address South Africa’s water crisis. 

“It is time that South Africa’s fascination with Cuba and the communist ideology come to an end. The latest deployment of Cuban engineers is outrageous, especially given that some of South Africa’s own engineers are unemployed, or have the capacity to help. 

What makes it even worse is that Minister Sisulu mentioned in an interview on Radio 2000 that applications had indeed been received for the positions currently being filled by Cubans, but tthe applicants were white,” Theuns du Buisson, economics researcher at the Solidarity Research Institute (SRI) explained. “By implication, the minister is prepared to appoint mentors at great cost rather than to use local talent to solve actual water problems. Consequently, black people can be left without water as long as, according to the minister, white people are not appointed in jobs.”

According to Solidarity, Cuba’s own water situation is precarious. The SRI report, for example, points out that most neighbourhoods in Havana only have water for two hours every five days.

“The Cuban government does not accept responsibility for this state of affairs, but rather blames US sanctions for the country’s lack of infrastructure. The Cubans conveniently forget that the US is not the only supplier of equipment,” Du Buisson contends.

Solidarity’s report also reveals other occasions where Cuban employees had been deployed, apparently to improve existing South African services.

“Since the ANC took over, attempts have been made at every opportunity to channel money to Cuba. For example, the South African Defence Force imported mechanics from Cuba at a cost of R200 million to repair vehicles. A number of these same vehicles were later sold as scrap,” Du Buisson said. “More recently, the Defence Force again spent an amount of R200 million on the drug Interferon. It was purchased from Cuba to be used against Covid-19 although there was no evidence that it would be effective.”

Solidarity shed more light on the conditions and circumstances under which Cuban workers are exported to foreign countries. 

Du Buisson explained: “It might be true that the Cubans are paid large sums of money, but the Cuban government lays claim to most of their remuneration. Cuba’s export of medical doctors to other countries contributes more to the state’s revenue than the entire tourism sector. These doctors often make allegations of intimidation by Cuban authorities while they are deployed in places around the world.” 

According to Du Buisson, one can only wonder whether the Cubans thus also regard their engineers as commodities in exchange for foreign currency. “What is certain is that the South African government did not bring them here to solve our water problems. Instead, they are here to confirm the ANC’s commitment to the communist ideal. This while our own engineers are ready to solve local problems with local experience and expertise,” Du Buisson concluded. 

To read the full report, click here


Cuban engineers in South Africa: Real skills development or diplomatic back-scratching?

Theuns du Buisson


The Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, recently welcomed 24 Cuban engineers to the country. Since then, many organisations and concerned parties have expressed their concern. How can a country with such high unemployment rates as South Africa, as well as an economy that is under immense pressure, consider hiring foreigners when local expertise seems to be available?

This report seeks to provide clarity with regard to South Africa’s seemingly endless infatuation with Cuba. Cuba’s bilateral agreements and “aid” to other countries are also investigated, as well as the state of Cuba’s water infrastructure. The current contingent of Cuban engineers, especially the legality of them working on our water projects, is then discussed in detail. Minister Sisulu who aggressively tried to fight off any criticism is also discussed.

Relations between South Africa and Cuba

In 1975, Cuba started to provide military assistance to Angola in their civil war. South Africa, on the other hand, supported the UNITA rebels in order to prevent Angola from getting a communist government. After FAPLA and MPLA clashed with South African armed forces in October 1975, and lost a battle that claimed seven Cuban lives, Fidel Castro referred to South Africa and Zaire as “the United States’ African puppet regimes”.1 This opened the door to Cuba’s prolonged presence in Angola.

Cuba is often credited for their role in the military onslaught, which “forced both PW Botha and FW de Klerk to the negotiating table”.2 Although this was one of many ways in which said negotiations were motivated, the Cuban military presence led to a lasting relationship with the ANC, which came to power in 1994. ANC forces were trained in Angola from 1977, and uMkhonto we Sizwe maintained relations with Cuba ever since. This included training and arms from Cuba throughout the 1980s.3

Nelson Mandela visited Cuba in 1991 and celebrated the unprecedented event of foreigners coming to the aid of Africans, as Cuba did.4 In 1994, Cuba was one of the first countries with which full diplomatic relations were established. Since then, presidential visits from and to Cuba and South Africa has occurred. President Mbeki paid two visits to Cuba, in 2000 and 2001. On his last visit, he was accompanied by ministers and representatives from many state departments.5 According to the same government website, Cuba imports many technologies from South Africa, with the only notable import from Cuba to South Africa being “pharmaceutical goods”.6

In 2014, South Africa welcomed the Cuban 5 who visited to thank the country for helping to free them from a US prison where they were detained in 1998 on charges of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder. During their welcoming ceremony, Clayson Monyela from the South African International Relations Office celebrated South African relations with Cuba,

especially with regard to addressing “the infrastructural backlogs inherited from the pre-1994 period”.7

In 2015, 34 Cuban engineers were employed by the Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation. At that time, it drew criticism from opposition parties and from the South African Institute of Civil Engineers.8 They said that South Africans would have applied for the positions had they received the same incentives as the Cuban engineers. The organisation said that the money could have been better applied by improving the working conditions and remuneration of local engineers, as some were unemployed and would have benefited from sustainable jobs being created within South Africa. Abe Thela, president of Consulting Engineers South Africa at that time, said that they were appalled by the department’s deployment of these Cuban engineers, since Cuba was not part of the Washington Accord that governs international engineering qualifications.9 He also said that South African engineering firms were only 60% occupied, and therefore had the capacity to take on new projects.

A similar event occurred in 2017, after which the South African Institution of Civil Engineering (SAICE) insisted that a solution be found. Construction World quoted a 2013 article about Cuba’s own water infrastructure and suggested that perhaps the “teachers” we are providing for our engineers may have solved their own water problems in the four years that followed10. Another four years later, this report found that this is still not the case.

In 2019, the Free State also imported 37 Cuban engineers at a cost of R84,7 million.11 This included their transport arrangements, housing and training in English and Sesotho.

From 2015 to 2017, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) spent more than R200 million to maintain and restore unserviceable vehicles under Operation Thusano. In addition to the cost of paying for the Cuban mechanics, Cuba also provided teachers to interpret for these mechanics as they spoke no other language besides Spanish. At the time, role-players in the arms trade reacted in disbelief as the money spent on restoring the trucks was enough to replace them.12 To add insult to injury, the SANDF decided to sell many of those same vehicles for scrap later in 2017.13 Cas Coovadia of the Banking Association of South Africa recently referred to this incident when he asked why the government insists on importing skills from Cuba when we have the means to train our own experts locally.14

In 2020, the SANDF again channelled about R200 million to Cuba. This time it was to purchase the untested Covid-19 drug Interferon. Besides the drug being found to be ineffective against any diseases commonly found in South Africa, about 40% of it was reportedly lost because SANDF members stored it incorrectly. The SANDF later denied these claims, however.15

Last week, with the appointment of Cuba’s president Miguel Diaz-Canel, the ANC issued a congratulatory statement to the Cuban Communist Party in which they congratulated the party on the smooth transition of power. It concluded as follows: “We further congratulate Cuba for making big practical and consistent steps in solidarity with oppressed people the world over, including advances in science and technology despite US foreign interference and illegal sanctions which have been continuously condemned by the world and the United Nations’ General Assembly over many years of UN General Assembly resolutions. Recalling Cuba’s history of struggle, starting with the Sierra Maestra Manifesto (12 July 1957) and the need to defend the homeland and revolution, we say: Long Live the revolutionary spirit of comrade Raul Castro and his compatriots, the people of Cuba! Long Live President Miguel Diaz-Canel!”16

The transition may have been seamless, but the ANC seems not to mind the fact that Fidel Castro’s term as head of state spanned 32 years17 or that the Cuban Communist Party frequently violates human rights to remain in power and maintain a state without government critique.18

With Soviet backing, Cuba was able to create reputable health and education systems.19 After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, these systems have become outdated and the quality of Cuban graduates are often questioned.20 Internationally, however, the Cuban healthcare system is regarded as one of the best, as Cuba has a life expectancy on par with first world countries, as well as a ratio of one doctor for every 150 people.21 Because of questions about the quality of Cuban doctors, South African medical students returning from Cuba are required to enrol for further training at local universities. This has raised the question as to why the capacity of local universities are not increased to allow students to obtain their entire degrees locally.22

With regard to Cuban doctors being deployed in South Africa, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize recently released details of payments to 187 Cuban medical personnel who came to assist during the Covid-19 pandemic. This amount came to R239 million. This roughly comes to R1,5 million per Cuban family physician.23 Family physicians made up the majority of the contingent from the Cuban medical brigade. According to doctors in the public sector, this is roughly what a top specialist in the public sector would earn.24

Even though there is general agreement that there is a scarcity of doctors25, especially in rural areas, one has to ask the question of whether the price justifies the product. Would it not be more cost-effective and culturally appropriate to train doctors locally?

South Africa and communism in the world today

Currently, only five communist countries remain in the world. They are Laos, North Korea, Vietnam, China and Cuba. South Africa has full and strong diplomatic relations with the last two26, with China being South Africa’s largest trading partner. 27

South Africa has official relations with the first three as well, although Vietnam is the only one in which an embassy is held. This makes South Africa one of few countries in the world with official diplomatic relations with all remaining communist countries. South Africa and Vietnam often conduct official diplomatic visits and are important trade partners, although volumes are fairly low compared to South Africa’s larger partners.28

The state of Cuban water infrastructure

One would expect the holders of expertise about water infrastructure to come from countries where world-class solutions are provided for their citizens. However, this is not the case. In a recent interview on Radio 2000, Minister Sisulu said that the Cuban engineers that are in South Africa have a unique skill set, because they also have to make do with limited resources, just as we often need to do. The problem with this statement, however, is that we do have the money required, if wasteful expenditure was to be allocated thereto. Municipal wasteful expenditure alone accounts for R32 billion29. For perspective, this is enough to pay for phase two of the massive Lesotho Highlands Water Project four times over.30

The New York Times recently published an article about Cuba’s dilapidated water infrastructure.31 It is estimated that about 50% of Cuba’s purified water is lost through leaks and malfunctioning equipment. Most people, even in the capital, Havana, only have water for two hours every five days. In order to collect water for later use, most people who can afford it have tanks on their rooftops. This creates health hazards, as these tanks are breeding grounds for mosquitoes which spread tropical diseases such as dengue fever and the Zika virus. To compensate for the failure of the water authorities, health authorities treat the water in these tanks with chemicals. However, these chemicals are usually in short supply. Officials then bring containers with small fish that they put in the tanks to eat the mosquito larvae. This obviously creates other problems further down the line. Some neighbourhoods are reliant on water that is delivered to them, often by horse-drawn carts.

Even though Cuba had good infrastructure in place, not much has been done to maintain and upgrade it since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. After this, Fidel Castro took control of all state functions and appointed members of the Communist Party to handle these functions. 32 Unfortunately, maintaining infrastructure and toppling a country’s government requires two very different skill sets, with the result that Cuba’s infrastructure was not sufficiently upgraded to keep up with circumstances and demand.

With the help of the Soviet Union, Cuba was able to build some dams. The last major dam was finished in 1985. A smaller dam, of which the project was started in 1982, was only completed in 2014 due to financial shortages. This project was completed by the Cuban military.33 After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost all meaningful allies and often blames US sanctions for their shortcomings.

The right to fresh water was only recognised by the Cuban constitution in 2019.34 Despite this, drinking water is not always readily available, as the trucks used to deliver the water are often unreliable. Even though trading in water is illegal in Cuba, many people do so anyway, as it is the only means of getting access to fresh drinking water. The law is also not easy to enforce, as transporting water for private use is acceptable, and officials would therefore need proof of transactions in order to prosecute.35

The current contingent of Cuban engineers in South Africa

The 24 Cuban engineers that recently arrived in South Africa are apparently here because South African engineers were unwilling to help, according to Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.36 According to her, no South Africans were available to help. She told Netwerk24 to refer any such South African engineers to her department and they will then be appointed. She also told the publication that the Cuban engineers are not here to take jobs from South Africans, but rather to impart skills from their experiences in Cuba to our engineering graduates – this despite the fact that Cuba’s own water infrastructure is in a terrible condition, as discussed above.

She stated in an interview on Radio 2000 that they ran an advertisement on Radio 702. “I sent out two adverts calling on all engineers. I had two white engineers coming and five white engineers calling to say we are here to help, she said.” This is contrary to what she told Netwerk24, as well as to the defensive stance she took in the Radio 2000 interview after Solidarity had sent her a list of 132 engineers that would be willing to help.37 Leonardo Manus, director of infrastructure and maintenance at the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, told Netwerk24 that Cuban applicants were selected according to their ability to speak English. Part of the selection process was to eliminate applicants who could not.38 This proves that the department took its time to ensure that the positions were filled by Cubans, rather than reaching out to South African engineers who would have been willing and able to assist.

The Solidarity Research Institute, as well as other organisations we had contact with, were all unable to find the so-called Radio 702 advert for engineering mentors in the department.

City Press confirmed that the Cuban engineers would not be able to work in South Africa, as they are not registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).39 Sipho Madonsela, CEO of ECSA, said that if they were to work, they would have to be supervised by a registered engineer. This is due to Cuba not being part of the International Engineering Alliance (IEA).











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Issued by Theuns du BuissonSolidarity Research Institute, Economics Researcher, 6 May 2021