Speech by Nelson Mandela, Moncada Day Rally, Matanzas, Cuba, July 26, 1991
After 27 years of imprisonment by the racist/fascist apartheid system, Nelson Mandela chose Cuba as one of the first countries outside of Africa and the first Latin American country to visit. During that visit he delivered the following speech outlining Cuba’s decisive contribution to the South African liberation struggle.
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Cuban internationalists, who have done so much to free our continent; Cuban people; comrades and friends:
It is a great pleasure and honour to be present here today, especially on so important a day in the revolutionary history of the Cuban people. Today Cuba commemorates the thirty- eighth anniversary of the storming of the Moncada. Without Moncada the Granma expedition, the struggle in the Sierra Maestra, the extraordinary victory of January 1, 1959, would never have occurred.
Today this is revolutionary Cuba, internationalist Cuba, the country that has done so much for the peoples of Africa.
We have long wanted to visit your country and express the many feelings that we have about the Cuban revolution, about the role of Cuba in Africa, southern Africa, and the world.
The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.
From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gains made in the Cuban revolution.
We too want to control our own destiny. We are determined that the people of South Africa will make their future and that they will continue to exercise their full democratic rights after liberation from apartheid. We do not want popular participation to cease at the moment when apartheid goes. We want to have the moment of liberation open the way to ever-deepening democracy.
We admire the achievements of the Cuban revolution in the sphere of social welfare. We note the transformation from a country of imposed backwardness to universal literacy. We acknowledge your advances in the fields of health, education, and science.
There are many things we learn from your experience. In particular we are moved by your affirmation of the historical connection to the continent and people of Africa.
Your consistent commitment to the systematic eradication of racism is unparalleled.
But the most important lesson that you have for us is that no matter what the odds, no matter under what difficulties you have had to struggle, there can be no surrender! It is a case of freedom or death!
I know that your country is experiencing many difficulties now, but we have confidence that the resilient people of Cuba will overcome these as they have helped other countries overcome theirs.
We know that the revolutionary spirit of today was started long ago and that its spirit was kindled by many early fighters for Cuban freedom, and indeed for freedom of all suffering under imperialist domination.
We too are also inspired by the life and example of Jose Martí, who is not only a Cuban and Latin American hero but justly honoured by all who struggle to be free.
We also honour the great Che Guevara, whose revolutionary exploits, including on our own continent, were too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us. The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom. We will always honour his memory.
Cuban internationalist troops fight side by side with the Angolan people, 1980. Cuba sent many volunteers to fight with the peoples of southern Africa against colonialism and the apartheid regimes.
We come here with great humility. We come here with great emotion. We come here with a sense of a great debt that is owed to the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?
How many countries of the world benefit from Cuban health workers or educationists? How many of these are in Africa?
Where is the country that has sought Cuban help and has had it refused?
How many countries under threat from imperialism or struggling for national liberation have been able to count on Cuban support?
It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided to the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under combined attack of South African, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975.
We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.
We know also that this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered. For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.
We know that the Cuban forces were willing to withdraw shortly after repelling the 1975 invasion, but the continued aggression from Pretoria made this impossible.
Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was of truly historic significance.
The overwhelming defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale provided the possibility for Angola to enjoy peace and consolidate its own sovereignty!
The defeat of the racist army allowed the struggling people of Namibia to finally win their independence!
The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors!
The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa!
Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned!
The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today!
Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation!
Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!
Apartheid is not something that started yesterday. The origins of white racist domination go back three and a half centuries to the moment when the first white settlers started a process of disruption and later conquest of the Khoi, San, and other African peoples — the original inhabitants of our country.
The process of conquest from the very beginning engendered a series of wars of resistance, which in turn gave rise to our struggle for national liberation. Against heavy odds, African peoples tried to hold on to their lands. But the material base and consequent firepower of the colonial aggressors doomed the divided tribal chiefdoms and kingdoms to ultimate defeat.
This tradition of resistance is one that still lives on as an inspiration to our present struggle. We still honour the names of the great prophet and warrior Makana, who died while trying to escape from Robben Island prison in 1819, Hintsa, Sekhukhune, Dingane, Moshoeshoe, Bambatha, and other heroes of the early resistance to colonial conquest.
It was against the background of this land seizure and conquest that the Union of South Africa was created in 1910. Outwardly South Africa became an independent state, but in reality power was handed over by the British conquerors to whites who had settled in the country. They were able in the new Union of South Africa to formalize racial oppression and economic exploitation of blacks.
Following the creation of the Union, the passing of the Land Act, purporting to legalize the land seizures of the nineteenth century, gave impetus to the process leading to the formation of the African National Congress on January 8, 1912.
I am not going to give you a history of the ANC. Suffice it to say that the last eighty years of our existence has seen the evolution of the ANC from its earliest beginnings aimed at uniting the African peoples, to its becoming the leading force in the struggle of the oppressed masses for an end to racism and the establishment of a non-racial, non-sexist, and democratic state.
Its membership has been transformed from its early days when they were a small group of professionals and chiefs, etc., into a truly mass organization of the people.
Its goals have changed from seeking improvement of the lot of Africans to instead seeking the fundamental transformation of the whole of South Africa into a democratic state for all.
Its methods of achieving its more far-reaching goals have over decades taken on a more mass character, reflecting the increasing involvement of the masses within the ANC and in campaigns led by the ANC.
Sometimes people point to the initial aims of the ANC and its early composition in order to suggest that it was a reformist organization. The truth is that the birth of the ANC carried from the beginning profoundly revolutionary implications.
The formation of the ANC was the first step towards creation of a new South African nation. That conception was developed over time, finding clear expression thirty-six years ago in the Freedom Charter’s statement that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” This was an unambiguous rejection of the racist state that had existed and an affirmation of the only alternative that we find acceptable, one where racism and its structures are finally liquidated.
It is well known that the state’s response to our legitimate democratic demands was, among other things, to charge our leadership with treason and, in the beginning of the 1960s, to use indiscriminate massacres. That and the banning of our organizations left us with no choice but to do what every self-respecting people, including the Cubans, have done — that is, to take up arms to win our country back from the racists.
I must say that when we wanted to take up arms we approached numerous Western governments for assistance and we were never able to see any but the most junior ministers. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest officials and were immediately offered whatever we wanted and needed. That was our earliest experience with Cuban internationalism.
Although we took up arms, that was not our preference. It was the apartheid regime that forced us to take up arms. Our preference has always been for a peaceful resolution of the apartheid conflict.
The combined struggles of our people within the country, as well as the mounting international struggle against apartheid during the 1980s, raised the possibility of a negotiated resolution of the apartheid conflict. The decisive defeat of Cuito Cuanavale altered the balance of forces within the region and substantially reduced the capacity of the Pretoria regime to destabilize its neighbours. This, in combination with our people’s struggles within the country, was crucial in bringing Pretoria to realize that it would have to talk.
It was the ANC that initiated the current peace process that we hope will lead to a negotiated transfer of power to the people. We have not initiated this process for goals any different from those when we pursued the armed struggle. Our goals remain achievement of the demands of the Freedom Charter, and we will settle for nothing less than that.
No process of negotiations can succeed until the apartheid regime realizes that there will not be peace unless there is freedom and that we are not going to negotiate away our just demands. They must understand that we will reject any constitutional scheme that aims at continuing white privileges.
There is reason to believe that we have not yet succeeded in bringing this home to the government, and we warn them that if they do not listen we will have to use our power to convince them.
That power is the power of the people, and ultimately we know that the masses will not only demand but win full rights in a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa.
But we are not merely seeking a particular goal. We also propose a particular route for realizing it, and that is a route that involves the people all the way through. We do not want a process where a deal is struck over the heads of the people and their job is merely to applaud. The government resists this at all costs because the question of how a constitution is made, how negotiations take place, is vitally connected to whether or not a democratic result ensues.
The present government wants to remain in office during the entire process of transition. Our view is that this is unacceptable. This government has definite negotiation goals. It cannot be allowed to use its powers as a government to advance its own cause and that of its allies and to use those same powers to weaken the ANC.
And this is exactly what they are doing. They have unbanned the ANC, but we operate under conditions substantially different from that of other organizations. We do not have the same freedom to organize as does Inkatha and other organizations allied to the apartheid regime. Our members are harassed and even killed. We are often barred from holding meetings and marches.
We believe that the process of transition must be controlled by a government that is not only capable and willing to create and maintain the conditions for free political activity. It must also act with a view to ensuring that the transition is towards creating a genuine democracy and nothing else.
Poster denouncing state of emergency laws imposed by the government of P.W. Botha to suppress the
The present government has shown itself to be quite unwilling or unable to create a climate for negotiations. It reneges on agreements to release political prisoners and allow the return of exiles. In recent times it has allowed a situation to be created where a reign of terror and violence is being unleashed against the African communities and the ANC as an organization.
We have had ten thousand people murdered in this violence since 1984 and two thousand this year alone. We have always said that this government that boasts of its professional police force is perfectly capable of ending this violence and prosecuting the perpetrators. Not only are they unwilling, we now have conclusive evidence, published in independent newspapers, of their complicity in this violence.
The violence has been used in a systematic attempt to advance the power of Inkatha as a potential alliance partner of the National Party. There is now conclusive evidence of funds provided by the government — that is, taxpayers’ money — to Inkatha.
All of this indicates the necessity to create an interim government of national unity to oversee the transition. We need a government enjoying the confidence of broad sections of the population to rule over this delicate period, ensuring that counterrevolutionaries are not allowed to upset the process and ensuring that constitution making operates within an atmosphere free of repression, intimidation, and fear.
The constitution itself, we believe, must be made in the most democratic manner possible. To us, that can best be achieved through electing representatives to a constituent assembly with a mandate to draft the constitution. There are organizations that challenge the ANC’s claim to be the most representative organization in the country. If that is true, let them prove their support at the ballot box.
To ensure that ordinary people are included in this process we are circulating and discussing our own constitutional proposals and draft bill of rights. We want these to be discussed in all structures of our alliance — that is, the ANC, South African Communist Party, and Congress of South African Trade Unions, and amongst the people in general. That way, when people vote for the ANC to represent them. in a constituent assembly, they will know not only what the ANC stands for generally, but what type of constitution we want.
Naturally these constitutional proposals are subject to re-vision on the basis of our consultations with our membership, the rest of the alliance, and the public generally. We want to create a constitution that enjoys widespread support, loyalty, and respect. That can only be achieved if we really do go to the people.
Nelson Mandela and then wife Winnie Mandela at a rally of the South African Communist Party. At right, the party’s leader Joe Slovo.
In order to avoid these just demands, various attempts have been made to undermine and destabilize the ANC. The violence is the most serious, but there are other more insidious methods. At present there is an obsession in the press, amongst our political opponents, and many Western governments with our alliance with the South African Communist Party. Newspapers continually carry speculations over the number of Communists on our National Executive and allege that we are being run by the Communist Party.
The ANC is not a communist party but a broad liberation movement, including amongst its members Communists and non-Communists. Anyone who is a loyal member of the ANC, anyone who abides by the discipline and principles of the organization, is entitled to belong to the organization.
Our relationship with the SACP as an organization is one of mutual respect. We unite with the SACP over common goals, but we respect one another’s independence and separate identity. There has been no attempt whatsoever on the part of the SACP to subvert the ANC. On the contrary, we derive strength from the alliance.
We have no intention whatsoever of heeding the advice of those who suggest we should break from this alliance. Who is offering this unsolicited advice? In the main it is those who have never given us any assistance whatsoever. None of these advisers have ever made the sacrifices for our struggle that Communists have made. We are strengthened by this alliance. We shall make it even stronger.
We are in a phase of our struggle where victory is in sight. But we have to ensure that this victory is not snatched from us. We have to ensure that the racist regime feels maximum pressure right till the end and that it understands that it must give way, that the road to peace, freedom, and democracy is irresistible.
That is why sanctions must be maintained. This is not the time to reward the apartheid regime. Why should they be rewarded for repealing laws which form what is recognized as an international crime? Apartheid is still in place. The regime must be forced to dismantle it, and only when that process is irreversible can we start to think of lifting the pressure,
We are very concerned at the attitude that the Bush administration has taken on this matter. It was one of the few governments that was in regular touch with us over the question of sanctions, and we made it clear that lifting sanctions was premature. That administration nevertheless, without consulting us, merely informed us that American sanctions were to be lifted. We find that completely unacceptable.
Fidel Castro warmly greets Nelson Mandela on his arrival in Cuba in 1991.
It is in this context that we value our friendship with Cuba very, very much. When you, Comrade Fidel, yesterday said that our cause is your cause, I know that that sentiment came from the bottom of your heart and that that is the feeling of all the people of revolutionary Cuba.
You are with us because both of our organizations, the Communist Party of Cuba and the ANC, are fighting for the oppressed masses, to ensure that those who make the wealth enjoy its fruits. Your great apostle Jose Martí said, “With the poor people of this earth I want to share my fate.”
We in the ANC will always stand with the poor and rightless. Not only do we stand with them. We will ensure sooner rather than later that they rule the land of their birth, that in the words of the Freedom Charter, “The people shall govern.” And when that moment arrives, it will have been made possible not only by our efforts but through the solidarity, support, and encouragement of the great Cuban people.
I must close my remarks by referring to an event which you have all witnessed. Comrade Fidel Castro conferred upon me the highest honour this country can award. I am very much humbled by this award, because I do not think I deserve it. It is an award that should be given to those who have already won the freedom of their peoples. But it is a source of strength and hope that this award is given for the recognition that the people of South Africa stand on their feet and are fighting for their freedom. We sincerely hope that in these days that lie ahead we will prove worthy of the confidence which is expressed in this award.
Long live the Cuban revolution! Long live Comrade Fidel Castro!
(Source: How Far We Slaves Have Come, By Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991). Photos: ANC Archives; UDF Archives; Canadian Network on Cuba; “Cien Imagenes de la Revolucion Cubana, 1953-1996,” Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado; Instituto Cubano del Libro; Editorial Arte y Literatura, Havana, 2004.)