Fidel Castro: The passion and the power

04 December 2016 - 18:42 By Bongani Madondo

The founding father of contemporary Cuba, Fidel Castro, died last week at the age of 90. Bongani Madondo pens an ode to the man and to what he meant to many South Africans.

There is something about the idea of Cuba that melts the heart. It melts it, on one hand, while it feverously pumps it up on the other.

The thing that melts and enrages simultaneously - at least in the public mind and in scholarship - is la pasión.

Cuba, a country of just over 11million (equal to the unofficial census of Johannesburg and Soweto combined), throbs with a larger-than-life heart in its ribcage.

And its incredibly passionate character was encoded in the DNA of its famous son, Fidel Castro Ruz, one of the founding fathers among the revolution's compañeros y compañeras.

Without him, contemporary Cuba doesn't exist, or risks becoming history's footnote. He was Cuba and Cuba was him.

And yet "Comrade Fidel" - unlike, say, North Korea's caricature of a dynasty in the Kims, or the former god-figurine of radicals worldwide, the Ayatollah - was a genuinely likeable persona beyond the Cuban question.

News of his death on November 25 spread with the speed of light across the world, from Miami to Mamelodi. The next morning the ANC's national executive committee was sitting in Kempton Park to discuss the crisis-riddled heart of the ANC: its leadership.

At the meeting, it was reported, Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies said of Fidel that he was "one of the giants of the revolution in the 20th century. He played a pivotal role in the liberation of southern Africa, particularly in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale - the Stalingrad of apartheid".


In parliament, opposition parties joined the ANC in observing the closing of a chapter, perhaps the very last page of the postscript to the Cold War.

"The history of South Africa," COPE's Denis Bloem observed, "cannot be written without the mentioning of FC."

To South Africa's young township radicals growing up in the 1980s - a bit too woolly headed to understand spoken-in-tongues theories such as "material dialectics" and "pedagogy of the oppressed" - Castro's dramatic, public gestures and green army fatigues were a welcome relief.

He was our man. Our Thomas Sankara. Our Malcolm X. Our Sékou Touré. They were no longer; in their stead Fidel stood, gangly and tall, with a beard for the ages. He was the site of our romantic projection of a love supreme.

In his veins ran the boiling blood of the fight for justice and a grand passion for his people, a combination that fuelled la revolución for more than 50 years after he and his band overthrew the vain, vile and vulgar Fulgencio Batista Zalvídar.

Although Fidel's image was not as readily commodifiable as that of comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who died much younger, the great revolutionary just could not stay in his lane.

In addition to being the heart and soul of Cuba, as he outlived the enemies of la revolución Fidel mutated into the poster uncle of global radical rhetoric and selflessness.

He struck a chord and secured an incontestable sacred space for himself and his country in the hearts of battle-hardened activists from Latin America to the US's Civil Rights movement and post-independence Africa.

For South Africa, Cuba's story has been close to our hearts, divisively, passionately, never indifferently. For some in and outside the liberation movement, Fidel deserves national honours.

As Davies said, he has a place in the story of the country's liberation - in particular as it dramatised itself in the brutal theatre of southern African wars.

With impressive numbers of black infantrymen in strategic command posts of the battle, Cuba played a decisive role in pushing back the South African Defence Force at Cuito Cuanavale, one of the bitterest battles in modern warfare.

Cuba's big-hearted attempts to export its brand of revolution and technical expertise at the invitation of liberation movements in Angola, Congo, Ethiopia and ultimately South Africa, altered the course of the Cold War.

block_quotes_start We all know what his enemies tell us about Fidel. How married he was to the revolution. His mirth and sulks and what a control freak he was block_quotes_end

It also restored faith in the deeply tragic but necessary act of armed struggle. Which is why it was to Cuba and specifically to Fidel that a recently released Nelson Mandela made a visit to "international comrades and supporters of our cause", back in 1991. Cuba continues to train hundreds of young doctors from this country.

We all know what his enemies tell us about Fidel Castro. The mundane, the humorous, the lies and truths told and untold. How icy he was to his own blood family. How married he was to the revolution. How his own daughter waged a life-long campaign against Papi from Miami. His mirth and sulks and what a control freak he was.

All those are peripheral to who the man was. They could have been the truth. There is a definite ring of truth to claims that Castro's regime harassed homosexuals, threw opposing voices in jail and unleashed gross violations of human rights.

All of this is not uncharacteristic of zealous radicals from opposing ideologies: nationalists, Marxists, reactionary conservatives.

Recognition of the shortcomings of our heroes cannot absolve them from personal and ideological responsibility. Their heroism or even tragic suffering on the treacherous path to liberating or protecting us can never substitute for the protection of life and freedom in the aftermath of the revolution.

Still, if we approach politics and the complexities of humanity with radical love and a commitment to question and study the deeds and stories of our leaders we will, inevitably, arrive at this: truth is subjective.

Thus no amount of truths can devalue Fidel Castro's national and global contribution to the righteous cause of structural transformation, sovereignty and the wellbeing of others.


In actuality, for more than a decade before his death Castro had been operating more like an elder shaman-sage and reminder of the revolution than a man who had operational control of Cuba.

The centre could not hold. After 50 years of a US blockade and the fall of the Soviet Union - Cuba's patron-in-chief - the country was slowly being asphyxiated. Something had to give.

The older Castro made room for Raúl, his younger brother and alumni of the Sierra Maestra band of guerrillas of 1959.

Fidel's stock slogans, such as socialismo o muerte ("socialism or death"), have been rapidly disappearing from the walls as renovations and new buildings spring up in Havana.

Cuba's economy and social mores are transforming, for better or worse. Since President Barack Obama's historic gesture - now threatened by his successor, Donald Trump - a US- led tourist boom has been in full swing.

Last year, the Rolling Stones marked Obama's gesture with a free concert in Havana. Vanity Fair shoots occasional covers in the city's once glorious, art deco catedrale, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z vroom about in Studebakers.

Raúl is 84 years old and has indicated that he is vacating the seat in 2018. If, after that, vulgar capitalism accelerates, Fidel's bones will surely rattle in their grave.

They won't make a comfortable sound for anyone who might have forgotten what la pasión for the revolution was all about.

The Soweto launch of Madondo's collection of essays and travel pieces, 'Sigh, the Beloved Country', takes place next Sunday at the Wine Bar, Vilakazi Street