South Africa’s Cuban connection questioned again

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The apparent preoccupation some in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet have with Cuba again manifested itself in the form of current Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

She joins the Defence and Military Veterans portfolio incumbent, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and the President in seeking specialist knowledge from the Caribbean Island to assist South Africa with what are generally termed “challenges” by the ruling party.

This utilisation of foreign expertise does not come cheaply and at least two political parties with Parliamentary representation are anti the Cuban connection.

One of these is the Democratic Alliance (DA) where parliamentarian Kobus Marais is tasked with keeping a weather eye on the activities of the Department of Defence (DoD), its second leg representing military veterans and its operational arm the SA National Defence Force (SANDF). Another is Pieter Groenewald’s Freedom Front Plus (FF+).

The national defence force has been using Cuban military expertise in the form of technical personnel to work on refurbishing military vehicles and other wheeled equipment since 2015. This project is code-named Thusano and initially saw 150 Cuban technical military personnel working at the SA Army main ordinance sub-depot at Wallmannsthal, north of Pretoria and military vehicle facilities in North West military hub Potchefstroom before going to other bases.

When COVID-19 regulations last year saw South Africa under stringent lockdown and its medical facilities and personnel stretched to contain the spread of the virus, government sought assistance from Cuba. This duly arrived in the form of a “Cuban medical brigade”, comprising as far as defenceWeb has been able to confirm both civilian and military medical personnel.

Their presence here and associated costs saw Marais ask Minister Mapisa-Nqakula why the DoD paid R30 million in flight and accommodation costs for the Cuban medical contingent. He maintains these should have been for the account of the National Department of Health and its provincial arms.

Mapisa-Nqakula informed Marais the request for Cuban medical assistance came from “the Commander-in-Chief” (President Cyril Ramaphosa) and the Caribbean islanders were brought to South Africa on an aircraft chartered by the SANDF.

“With the pandemic having affected the whole country, the DoD carried the cost. In the interest of the national objective to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DoD paid for accommodation, chattering and quarantine,” part of her written response to Marais read.

In a subsequent development Cabinet indicated it would nominate the Cuban medical brigade for the Nobel Peace Prize for “assistance in the fight against the spread of COVID-19” according to government news service SANews.

Sisulu this week made public the imminent arrival of 24 Cuban engineers to assist in addressing “water infrastructure issues”. Reportedly at a cost of R64. 6 million the Cuban expertise is reportedly going to be “assigned in the area of infrastructure maintenance and operation skills throughout the water value chain from source to tap”.

FF+ reacted to the Cuban engineers through a statement by parliamentarian Wouter Wessels who maintains Cuban expertise is “unaffordable and unacceptable”.

He has it the ruling party’s “historical ties and ideological attachment” to Cuba are both a heavy and fruitless burden on South Africa.

Leon Basson, DA shadow minister for Sisulu’s portfolio, said the “continuous overlooking of local professionals and their expertise by government to appease old allies” was worrying with reference to the Cuban engineers and others, including doctors and teachers.

Wessels pointed to reports indicating the cost of Cuban military vehicle technical personnel was “a billion Rand failure” and the arrival of the Cuban medical brigade was unnecessary in the light of there “being thousands of unemployed medical experts locally who could have done the work”.