The ANC finds true love

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on our ruling party's ongoing Cuba infatuation


Despite all its bluster and bravado, the African National Congress government is emotionally deeply insecure. This lack of confidence, which is paradoxically coupled with feelings of entitlement, often leads to irrational and obnoxious behaviour.

The psychology is that of the immature teen. When it comes to foreign affairs, this translates into South Africa — like a tempestuous adolescent ruled by raging hormones rather than sound sense — alternating between defiant posturing and the cringingly obsequious.

Even while begging the Western democracies for life-saving injections of investment and loans, the ANC is unwilling (or unable) to conceal its loathing of its capitalist benefactors. On the other hand, the infatuation of President Cyril Ramaphosa and his sidekicks with the Cubans, the Venezuelans and others of a socialist ilk, is that of the classic schoolyard crush.

For historical reasons, it is with the Cubans, in particular, that the ties are strongest and most emotional. It's a fairy-tale romance, with the ANC unswervingly starry-eyed despite the financial cost of the dalliance.

Last year, when Covid struck, the government did a deal with Cuba for the deployment of 187 medical personnel at a total cost of more than R400m in salaries and benefits. This week the government revealed that it was doing the same thing, on a smaller scale, and importing a consignment of 24 Cuban water engineers at a cost of R64.6m.

These newest Cubans, we’re assured, have all kinds of skills that South Africa’s experts, once considered among the best in the world, apparently lack.

Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, who held a special ceremony to welcome our aquatic saviours, expressed “optimism and confidence” at the arrival of the “highly qualified” Cubans who, she said, possess “vast skills” in the fields of water and sewage engineering. Oddly enough, water and sanitation engineers do not appear on the Home Affairs Critical Skills List, released in February, which itemises the critical occupations in which employers are allowed to recruit overseas staff.

But the benefit of the Cuban engineers has less to do with their astonishing technical prowess than the practical political benefits they provide. The ANC hopes to stem the collapse of the country’s water infrastructure, which is the result of its affirmative action appointments and the deployment of unqualified personnel, without the embarrassment of having to bring back the minority group experts that it got rid of. 

The ANC hopes to solve the collapse of the country’s water infrastructure, without having the embarrassment of bringing back those experts that it got rid of. That is, the ones who were of the wrong hue or political persuasion.

It will be most interesting to see how the Cubans handle the shortcomings of municipal water workers, who regularly sabotage their own plants during labour disputes, depriving hundreds of thousands of families of potable water for weeks on end. It is estimated that in the period 1959 to 2016, Cuba executed an estimated 4,000 people for their lack of revolutionary fervour. Sadly, nowadays the preferred solution to is no longer a firing squad but the relatively mild punishment of prolonged detention without trial.

It’s in medicine, though, where the ANC’s Cuban courtship is most visible. Rather than building local capacity, since the mid-1990s South Africa has been sending around 800 youngsters each year to train in Cuban medical schools, at more than double the cost of training locally. 

Cuba’s medical assistance programmes worldwide are an innovative way of exercising diplomatic leverage through so-called “soft power”. And keeping the island nation financially afloat — the salaries earned by the Cubans despatched last year to assist in the pandemic are almost double those earned by South African doctors, although reportedly most of the money goes directly to the Cuban state. 

Perversely, last year’s Cuban deployment took place at the same time that the ANC government had frozen more than 40,000 healthcare posts; was failing to use the skills of several hundred unemployed doctors; had not placed in posts many community service physicians; and had completely ignored the volunteered free services of many private practitioners. Nor did the government raise a finger to ease the plight of South African doctors trained overseas, who can struggle for years with a registration red-tape nightmare of getting permission to practice.

It’s different when it comes to the ANC leadership’s fawning engagement with the Cubans, which is at the level of a gaggle of simpering schoolgirls towards the hunky school rugby captain. President Cyril Ramaphosa, with eyelashes aflutter, said their arrival was “a great demonstration of solidarity and humanity”, lauding their “selflessness and unwavering support” of the government.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize opined that this was a “seminal moment” for South African healthcare and praised Cuban involvement as “the true definition of selfless devotion to the art of service”. Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba ingratiatingly urged the Cubans to stick to their superior revolutionary consciousness and not make “the big mistake of doing things the South African way”.

Lovesick as it is, the ANC is quick to lavish largesse on the object of its adoration. Aside from the more than R400m that we know was paid for the Cuban pandemic squad, the SA National Defence Force illegally spent R260m on the secret acquisition of a Cuban “miracle cure” for Covid. 

And at the same time as negotiating US$4.3bn in Covid emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund — as well as raking in another few billion rands in donations from our wealthier citizens — the ANC was sending medical and food relief to Cuba. While South African health workers were struggling to get personal protection equipment, two large consignments of “bed covers, blankets, injection packs, infrared thermometers and protective clothing, particularly surgical gloves and masks” were being airlifted to Cuba.

The Cuban government formally thanked the “South African government” for its humanitarian relief, which blew the lid on the low-key deliveries. In response to the subsequent public criticism, Ramaphosa eventually, after three months, issued a cryptically worded statement saying that it was not the government but by “private individuals” who had paid for the relief supplies. Speculatively, since the handover was made by Ace Magashule — the ANC’s secretary-general and the criminally accused in a R300m fraud and corruption case — it most likely was a fraternal exchange between the party structures of the ANC and Communist Party of Cuba.

There are clear hints here of an unsavoury and corrupt relationship, if not at a government-to-government level, then certainly at officialdom-to-officialdom and/or party-to-party levels. The SANDF expenditure is being examined by the Special Investigations Unit, which was somewhat stymied in its initial efforts when soldiers with guns levelled, prevented the SIU from entering the military's medical stores. 

As long as it was legally done, there is of course nothing wrong with the ANC government splurging all this money on its hot Cuban date. After all, theirs may yet prove to be a marriage made in heaven.

But for all the reasons outlined above, Ramaphosa’s nomination of the Cuban brigade for the Nobel Peace Prize is a different matter. It epitomises how puppy love is indifferent to reality and it’s also damn annoying and embarrassing to the adults in the room.

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