Cuban tribute to Ambassador John Nkadimeng: His huge legacy on South Africa-Cuba relations will never been forgotten

By Rodolfo Benítez Verson, Ambassador of Cuba to South Africa, Eswatini and Lesotho

30 August 2020

Cuba and South Africa formally established diplomatic relations on May 11, 1994, just one day after Nelson Mandela´s inauguration as President.

In fact, Cuba was the first country that a liberated South Africa recognized diplomatically and the first in which South Africa established a new embassy after the end of Apartheid.

Commander-In-Chief Fidel Castro, guest of honor at the inauguration ceremony, suggested Mandela to appoint as an Ambassador to Cuba someone he could fully trust.  It was not an ordinary ambassadorship posting; many plans for the future had already been discreetly discussed by the two leaders.

In August 1995, Mandela selected John Nkadimeng for this important position. It was not a surprise for us in Cuba. Cde. Nkadimeng started working with Mandela at the age of 25 in 1950 and they became very close. Mandela knew that Cde. Nkadimeng was up to the task.

The Cuban government could not be happier with the choice. Cde. Nkadimeng was already known by us in Cuba. We knew he was a very well-prepared cadre that combined great experience of leadership from the ANC, the SACP and the trade unions.

We were aware of his contribution to the fight against Apartheid, both in South Africa and in the exile. He had demonstrated to be a man of principle and humility. Cde. Nkadimeng was a profoundly committed communist.

He was involved in Cuba's secret contacts with the ANC, SACP, trade unions and MK during the anti Apartheid struggle. Many combatants received military training, education and other skills from Cuban instructors in the Novo Katengue camp and other places in Angola. Others traveled to Cuba for education in our universities or for specialized military training. Cuba also provided MK with equipment and armament. Many South Africans fighters carried Cuban passports to facilitate international movement during that difficult time.

Cde. Nkadimeng also played a key role in strengthening the relations between the Cuban Workers’ Federation (CTC) and the South African trade unions during Apartheid. Numerous meetings were held in Cuba between the CTC and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and then later with COSATU. Cde. Nkadimeng, then general secretary of SACTU, participated in 1990 in the XVI CTC Congress in Havana and he had extensive meetings with our trade unions and leaders.

On his designation as Ambassador he later said:  “I felt that Mandela had honored me by sending me to Cuba, a country that was prepared to do anything for South Africa”.

Of course, the news of his appointment was not well received by Washington. The US government put a lot of pressure on South Africa to avoid the deployment of an Ambassador to Cuba.

The leaders of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations in the US Congress even sent a protest letter to the government of South Africa, openly threatening with retaliation. “The clear message of the decision to send an ambassador to Cuba – read the US Congress letter-would be to tell the American people that South Africa does not share our commitment to liberty, justice and democracy. Such a message could have significant impact on the Congress’s relations with South Africa”.

However, the pressure was in vain. Cde. Nkadimeng assumed on the 25th October 1995 his position as the first Ambassador to Cuba of a liberated South Africa. Since his arrival he was emphatic on the South African support to the Cuban Revolution and strongly condemned the US government’s criminal economic, commercial, and financial blockade against Cuba.

During his 4 years as Ambassador he worked tirelessly to strengthen the special bonds of friendship, solidarity and cooperation between South Africa and Cuba. He loved the Cuban people and the achievements of our Socialist Revolution. Cubans loved him back.

He was a key channel for the extensive contacts between Mandela and Fidel. He enjoyed a close friendship with our Commander in Chief because Fidel knew that more than a diplomat, Cde.Nkadimeng was a true revolutionary, a real representative of the working class, a man of integrity. He was not seeking personal glory or material rewards. He was a true servant of the people of South Africa and a true friend of the Cuban Revolution.

Ambassador Nkadimeng had a key role in initiating important bilateral cooperation agreements in many fields, including the outstanding Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro medical training program, under which thousands of young South Africans coming from disadvantage communities are trained in Cuba as medical doctors. These doctors come back to South Africa and improved health care conditions in their communities.

After successfully concluding his important mission in Cuba, Cde. Nkadimeng continued to be very close to our country. He was the Chairperson of the Friends of Cuba Society (FOCUS) in Gauteng province from 2002 to 2005. We will never forget his fundamental role in the South African campaign for the release of the Cuban Five.

We will always honor this giant of Solidarity and Internationalism. His life will forever be a crucial part of the history of our special relations. We are committed to preserve his enormous legacy. He will be sorely missed.

Hamba khale Comrade John Nkadimeng!