The ANC's expensive Cuba infatuation

Jeremy Gordin on our govt's determination to funnel millions to the island, in return for vrot services

‘You should dream more, Mr Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.’ – Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene (1958).

When I first went to Israel in 1971, I was, as a preliminary to attending university, sent for about three months to a kibbutz ulpan [i] where I encountered inter alios the first Cuban person I’d ever met.

Her name was Dolly, and she was referred to by the rest us – on the rare occasions that we mentioned her – simply as Dolly m’Cuba (Hebrew for “Dolly from Cuba”). She didn’t feature much in our conversations and lives because she spoke scant English, the (initial) lingua franca of the ulpan. Besides, one also got the impression that clearly conscientious Dolly m’Cuba did not feel too at home with the rest of us wannabe hippies and obvious ne’er-do-wells [ii].

About five years later, having returned to Seffrica and having been called up to the SADF, I remember receiving an informative briefing about Cubans from one of the ou manne (or “seniors” as they were called in that particular unit) whose company was about to go to the border.

“Ons gaan nou die Kubane naai,” he explained to a group of goggle-eyed roofies. “Hulle lyk nie soos [k-word plural] [iii] nie, maar hulle is amper so dom”.

Then in July 2017, I reviewed Mandela’s Last Years: the story of Nelson Mandela’s final journey by Vejay Ramlakan, former head of Mandela’s medical team and Surgeon-General of the South African military health service (SAMHS). As a result of complaints from Graça Machel, the publisher Penguin had removed his book from bookshops; it's not what you know but who you used to know[iv].

Now, if I might take the liberty of quoting myself: “So everyone interfered [in the treatment of Mandela during his last days, according to Ramlakan] – ... For example, the Minister of Defence for most of the period, Lindiwe Sisulu, Ramlakan’s ultimate boss, who does not have to the best of my knowledge a medical degree, got involved.

“In one of the more bizarre scenes in the book (p 68 seq.), Sisulu instructed Ramlakan to ensure that Mandela – this is circa January 2011 – is examined by a team of Cuban doctors, who are flown in. Why? ... [P]resumably because “our” doctors, without any training in Marxist dialectic, might not be smart enough. ...

“As it turned out, the Cuban doctors seemed to think that all that could be done for Mandela was indeed being done by the local yokels – the local “Mandela task team” [which] included some seriously eminent specialists ... – and, in any case, the Cubans didn’t seem to have too good a grasp of English (or isiXhosa). The Cuban consultation petered out in an email correspondence, which the Cubans seemed not to have kept up very diligently.”

But if that review was, so to speak, my last connection with Cubans, this has not been the case when it comes to various members of the ANC.

As you might know, on Tuesday the Pretoria high court granted AfriForum an urgent interim interdict preventing the department of international relations & cooperation (Dirco) from “donating” R50-million to the Cuban government “for food security in that country” and ordered Dirco to pay the costs of the application.

Good ol’ former finance minister and leading chef Tito Mboweni then set the proverbial cat among the pigeons last night on social media by posting a pic of Fidel Castro and OR Tambo smilingly shaking hands. Mboweni wrote on Twitter: “Friendships that last forever. Cuba and the ANC. OR Tambo and Fidel Castro”.

No surprise. According to court papers, it was Mboweni and Dirco’s Naledi “hong hong” Pandor who proposed that SA financially support Cuba in light of Cuba’s “testy relations” with the US. And Pandor says she might well waste more taxpayer’s money by returning to court to fight the interdict.

Well, now we know which department seems to have has plenty of money for those who’ve been financially devastated by inter alia the last two years of lockdowns. But then, having or not having money is not an issue when it comes to our allies in Cuba.

On March 7, intrepid Sunday Times Daily reporter Graeme Hosken reported that “the cash-strapped SA National Defence Force (SANDF) forked out millions ... on a chartered Air Zimbabwe flight [v] to bring home eight trainee pilots who had failed their eye tests in Cuba”.

Warming to his task, Hosken wrote: “Already battling budget cuts, a crumbling infrastructure, and an internal board of inquiry into nearly R1bn of wasteful expenditure [vi], the latest saga involves the SANDF’s vaunted Cuban military training exchange programme, code-named Project Thusano”.

Bottom line is that three weeks after their arrival in August, eight of 12 SA Air Force (SAAF) trainees were told they had failed an eye test conducted with a BIC ballpoint pen and were kicked off the programme. The test required trainees to follow the movement of the pen with their eyes. The eight spent the next five months cutting grass with pangas until the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) turned to the courts in a bid to force the SANDF to bring them home.

One of the trainee pilots said: “We totally wasted our time. We were meant to be there to learn how to fly. We went across not knowing Spanish, yet we were given psychological tests in Spanish [vii]. They failed us [on the eye test] using a ballpoint pen. What kind of test is that?”

Anyway, a Sunday Times Daily investigation, based on data from the international flight tracking website Flight Radar, showed that between August 2021 and January 2022 the SANDF chartered two airlines to ferry personnel to and from Cuba at an estimated cost of several million rand. One of these was a chartered Air Zimbabwe flight to bring home the eight trainee pilots – at a cost of at least R2,1m.

This is the same SANDF whose chief, General Rudzani Maphwanya, told parliament in January that all the vials of the so-called Covid-19 miracle drug Heberon, which the SANDF had procured and subsequently imported illegally, had been returned to Cuba.

In April last year, the SANDF apparently spent nearly more than R200 million to import Heberon Alpha R 2B, manufactured by a Cuban/Chinese company. Interferons are proteins used in the body as part of its natural defence against viruses. There is, however, no scientific proof that the drug is effective in treating Covid-19 and it is not approved or registered for use in South Africa.

But what precisely has happened to the R200-million or so – or whether it was indeed all ever paid – is not, er, entirely clear. Not that anyone seems to care that much.

Also in April last year, our good friend and then water and sanitation minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, whom we previously met above in her incarnation as minister of defence, was back.

She, as you might recall, expressed (in April 2021, this is) her confidence and excitement about the imminent arrival of 24 Cuban engineers who would assist Seffrica to enhance and improve the government’s efforts on water delivery and related services. The Department of Water and Sanitation said the budget for “the project,” for the (then) financial year, stood at R64 652 000.

At the time, the DA’s spokesperson on water and sanitation, Leon Basson, had the temerity to state: “Over the past 20 years, the South African government has been employing Cuban teachers, doctors, and engineers. However, there seems to be very little if any evidence that the Cubans have made a significant contribution that local doctors, teachers, or engineers could not have.”

Basson went on to say: “What we do know is that the Cuban employees usually only receive a stipend while in South Africa and that the bulk of their salaries appear to be paid to the Cuban government. The chance for kickbacks for those organising these projects is highly likely. And all the while South African engineers, doctors, and teachers are joining the unemployment line by being overlooked by the South African government.”

Then also last year the DA’s pesky Jack Bloom climbed into the Gauteng Department of Health for spending R32,5 million out of its HIV/Aids grant to pay 28 Cuban doctors who were roped in “to assist in the fight” against the Covid-19 pandemic.

What’s happened with our water resources and what the precise contribution was of the Cuban doctors towards the fight against Covid-19, I’m not certain.

All I know is that at least the ANC folk are very loyal to former friends – provided they can use my and your money – and that maybe those Cubans aren’t so “dom” after all.


[i] A study centre for newcomers to Israel in which intensive training in Hebrew is given.

[ii] Being a curious fellow, I did once or twice try to find out what it’d been like being Jewish in Cuba and how she’d managed to emigrate to Israel (it was 1971, remember). But, besides our language difficulties, she, it seemed, didn’t want to pursue that conversation anyway.

[iii] NB: I’m just reporting. Please don’t take away my directorship of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies – if it should ever come my way.

[iv] Later, in 2019, Machel had Ramlakan hauled before the Professional Conduct Committee of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). But Machel never showed up for the hearing (she claimed to be busy with charitable work in Mozambique); then she seemed to think again about going through with the tribunal; and in August 2020 Ramlakan died. See here.

Incidentally, I subsequently reliably learned that it was Dr Iqbal Survé who assisted Ramlakan with the (not inexpensive) costs of his legal team for the aborted legal battle against Machel. Life is full of surprises.

[v] Well, I guess SAA isn’t flying these days.

[vi] Dunno what this one is about.

[vii] Cubans need to think about ulpanim, clearly.