Cuba–South Africa relations

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Cuba–South Africa relations
Map indicating locations of Cuba and South Africa


South Africa

Cuba–South Africa relations refer to the bilateral relations between Cuba and South Africa. Relations were strained during the apartheid era. Cuba has an embassy in Pretoria, South Africa has an embassy in Havana.

Since the end of apartheid the South African government has sought to extend significant support to the Cuban government in the form of loans, payment for technical exchanges and advocacy support to end the United States embargo against Cuba. This includes a R84.6 million (US$ 5.46 million) loan in 2021,[1] medical exchanges,[2] contracts to service military equipment,[3] and a R50 million (US$ 3.3 million) food aid donation in 2022[4][5] that was later revealed to be R350 million in value.[6] Many of these initiatives have been controversial within South Africa where it has been argued that they divert government resources at high cost from domestic problems such as high rates of unemployment, failing infrastructure, poor quality government service delivery and poverty alleviation.

Relations during apartheid[edit]

Cuba condemned the apartheid government in South Africa and demanded the release of Nelson Mandela. The two nations fought against each other in the Angolan Civil War until 1988:[7] the apartheid government of South Africa supported the nominally anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and Cuba supported the socialist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). In 1988, Cuba, Angola and South Africa signed the New York Accords, in terms of which Cuba withdrew its troops from Angola in exchange for South Africa granting independence to Namibia.

Post-apartheid government exchange[edit]

South African campaign against United States Cuba sanctions[edit]

Members of the South African Communist Party protest outside of the Union Buildings in Pretoria to advocate for the removal of sanctions imposed on Cuba by the United States.

In July 2014, the African National Congress (ANC) pledged that South Africa will assist Cuba in its fight to remove United States sanctions.[8][9]

South African foreign assistance to Cuba[edit]

In 2022 a R50 million donation of food aid was made by the South African government to alleviate food insecurity in Cuba.[10] It was criticised within South Africa for not instead being used to alleviate domestic food insecurity that detractors argued was worse than in Cuba.[10][11] Criticism of the donation prompted the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, to speculate about what she described as the "mystery" of anti-Cuban sentiment within South Africa.[6][12]

Technical exchanges[edit]

Since 1996 the South African government has sought to secure the skills of Cuban nationals with certain technical skills from the Cuban government. This practice as drawn controversy over its need given the large number of South Africans already with these skills, skills mismatches, and the cost associated with this practice.

Medical exchange[edit]

South Africa since 1996 South Africa has been a recipient of Cuban medical internationalism. Between 1996 and 2002, more than 450 Cuban doctors and medical lecturers were deployed in South Africa[13][2] and about a hundred South African students a year are trained in Cuba before finishing their studies in South Africa.[14] Both aspects of the programme have been criticised because of the mismatch between skills needed and taught in Cuba and those in South Africa, the inability of Cuban doctors to speak local languages, and the fact that medical students in Cuba must spend a year learning Spanish and return knowing medical terminology only in Spanish.[15] In 2013, 187 students out 1200 in Cuba went on strike for higher stipends and more variety in meals.[16]

During the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa the South African government deployed Cuban medical personal across the country[17][18][19] to help fight the pandemic at a cost of R429 million.[17] The deployment was controversial with the South African Medical Association,[18] The South African Internationally Trained Health Professionals Association[17] and Democratic Alliance[20] criticising it for not using unemployed South African medical professionals instead. The Daily Maverick questioned the high cost paid for the doctors.[17] The United States government criticised their deployment and payments made for their services as a form of human trafficking[21] whilst the Cuban government rejected allegations of profiting from the deployment of its doctors[22] and stated that criticism was part of a "smear campaign".

Water engineering[edit]

In April 2021 the South African government announced that 24 Cuban water engineers would be contracted to enhance the country's water infrastructure.[23] This was criticised by the trade union Solidarity,[24] South African Institution of Civil Engineering,[25] and academics[26] as unnecessary given the country's already existing engineering skills in building and maintaining water infrastructure.

Military support[edit]

Since 2015 the Cuban technical military mechanics have been deployed to service South African military equipment.[3] The cost of this deployment is estimated to have been at least R1 billion.[27][28] The cost and use of Cuban nationals has been controversial with both the Democratic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus political parties questioning the practice.[3]

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was forced to return 500 000 vials irregularly procured COVID-19 drugs back to Cuba after it was reveled that R228 million (equivalent to US$ 14.9 million) worth of Heberon Alfa R 2b was improperly procured from the country.[29][30] A total of 970,695 vials were illegally imported and delivered to the SANDF in 2020 with a total value of R229 million (US$ 15 million) as part of more than R 1 billion spent in Operation Thusano.[29] All money spent in the operation was declared "irregular" by the South African Auditor-General.[29]


  1. ^ Mahlati, Zintle. "Govt has no plans to write off R84 million loan to Cuba, Parliament hears". News24. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  2. ^ a b Hammett, Daniel (March 2007). "Cuban Intervention in South African Health Care Service Provision". Journal of Southern African Studies. 33 (1). Taylor & Francis: 63–81. JSTOR 25065171.
  3. ^ a b c "South Africa's Cuban connection questioned again". defenceWeb. 2021-04-23. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  4. ^ "Pandor says R50m donation to Cuba is in context of friendship". BusinessLIVE. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  5. ^ Felix, Jason. "As Pandor defends SA's R50 million aid to Cuba, AfriForum wants answers in court". News24. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  6. ^ a b Zama, Zanele. "'There is mystery of a very determined anti-Cuba sentiment,' Pandor on donations". Retrieved 2022-05-24.
  7. ^ Angola profile, British Broadcasting Corporation, 22 December 2013, archived from the original on 8 July 2014
  8. ^ Khumalo, Thuso (25 July 2014). "S. Africa Launches Campaign Against US Cuba Sanctions". Voice of America. Archived from the original on 26 July 2014.
  9. ^ "South Africa Launches Campaign Against U.S. Cuba Sanctions". Radio Cadena Agramonte. 28 July 2014. Archived from the original on 27 August 2014.
  10. ^ a b Bhengu, Cebelihle (11 February 2022). "Petition to halt government's R50m donation to Cuba gains momentum". TimesLIVE. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  11. ^ Felix, Jason. "As Pandor defends SA's R50 million aid to Cuba, AfriForum wants answers in court". News24. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  12. ^ "'There is mystery of a very determined anti-Cuba sentiment,' Pandor on donations". CapeTalk. Retrieved 2022-05-24.
  13. ^ "Cuban Doctors Find Niche in Rural South Africa". 10 May 1998. Archived from the original on 17 April 2015.
  14. ^ Bateman, Chris (August 2013). "Doctor shortages: Unpacking the 'Cuban solution'". South African Medical Journal. 103 (9): 603–605. doi:10.7196/samj.7323. Archived from the original on 17 April 2015.
  15. ^ "SA-Cuba medical programme criticised". Archived from the original on 29 March 2015.
  16. ^ "SA medical students in Cuba on strike".
  17. ^ a b c d Davis, Rebecca. "Coronavirus Analysis: Is the deployment of Cuban doctors to SA justified?". Daily Maverick. Archived from the original on 2 August 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  18. ^ a b "Cuban doctors came at our request – Minister of Health". News24. 29 April 2020. Archived from the original on 27 May 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  19. ^ "Here's where the Cuban doctors will be deployed to fight Covid-19". TimesLIVE. Archived from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  20. ^ "COVID-19: DA wants govt to prioritise SA health workers". eNCA. Archived from the original on 8 May 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  21. ^ "US criticises South Africa's use of Cuban doctors in fight against Covid-19". Independent Online. South Africa. Archived from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  22. ^ Mabena, Charles Cilliers and Sipho. "Cuba rejects report that its doctors will get R440m from SA as a 'smear' from the USA". The Citizen. Archived from the original on 28 July 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
  23. ^ Mitchley, Alex. "Cuban engineers to transfer water, sanitation skills that SA engineers do not have - Sisulu". News24. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  24. ^ Evans, Compiled by Jenni. "Solidarity wants Lindiwe Sisulu to suspend Cuban engineer programme to fix water infrastructure". News24. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  25. ^ "Why are Cuban engineers better than South African ones?". Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  26. ^ "South Africa won't benefit from Cuban engineers - Water expert". 702. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  27. ^ Staff Writer. "South Africa spent R1.6 billion on Cubans – but locals could have done the work". Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  28. ^ Gerber, Jan. "Defence dept cash-strapped, but pays Cubans more than R1 billion to repair equipment". News24. Retrieved 2021-05-24.
  29. ^ a b c Gibson, Erika (2022-01-26). "HASTA LA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: Back to Cuba: SANDF returns irregularly procured Covid drug worth R228m". Daily Maverick. Retrieved 2022-01-27.
  30. ^ "Millions of rand lost as SANDF returns unauthorised Cuban Covid-19 drug". The Mail & Guardian. 2022-01-26. Retrieved 2022-01-27.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cuba (Republic of), Department of International Relations and Cooperation: Republic of South Africa, archived from the original on 6 March 2014