Remembering Fidel Castro’s impact in southern Africa


With the passing of Fidel Castro, a lot has been written about his influence in Latin America, but Castro also had a profound impact on southern Africa, as well.

In Cuba it seems there will forever be two histories of Fidel Castro.

One is the revolutionary who succeeded and became the guiding star for all who saw the world through the lens of Marxist Leninism.

The other is the brutal dictator who suppressed democracy and kept his country poor.

There is one place where Castro undoubtedly made a difference: southern Africa.

The main presence of Cuba on the African continent was in Angola, which became a Cold War battleground in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship in April 1974 opened the first fissures in the dam that protected white rule,” Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, states in his book, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria & the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, points out. The Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique became independent, and suddenly apartheid South Africa was nervous of these free black states in their neighborhood of southern Africa.


Almost immediately, the South African and US governments intervened to install a regime that was allied with the West as opposed to one that would be allied with the Soviet Union.  Pretoria and Washington worked together to crush the left-wing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the Soviet Union and Cuba worked together to support the MPLA.  As Piero Gleijeses points out, “Southern Africa had been hurled into the vortex of the Cold War.”

The Russians sent about 1,000 advisers and money but no combat troops. East Germany also sent military assistance.

Castro, however, saw an opportunity to exert his brand of international solidarity and make a difference on a global scale.

Between November 1975 and April 1976, 36,000 Cuban soldiers, as well as military advisers, tanks, and fighter aircraft, poured into Angola in an effort to help a new nation maintain its independence from the West.

Castro in Angola with President Agostinho Neto

Fidel Castro in Angola with President Agostinho Neto (r. 1975-79)

Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration

Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration

By April 1976 the Cubans had pushed the South Africans out of Angola.  For the next fifteen years – until 1991 – tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers remained in Angola. Their number peaked at 55,000 in 1988.

The Cuban role in Angola is without precedent. No other Third World country has projected its military power beyond its immediate neighborhood. Brazil sent troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965; Argentina briefly intervened in Nicaragua in 1980-81; China’s military activities outside Asia were limited to the supply of weapons and the dispatch of a few hundred instructors to  Africa.

Africans, Americans, Cubans, and Soviets jostled in a confusing landscape. They fought over the future of Angola and the decolonization of Namibia, Africa’s last colony. Beyond lay the great prize: South Africa.

In Angola in the late 1970s and 1980s, the left-wing MPLA government faced two enemies bent on its destruction: the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi (leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)), and the South African government. Pretoria was well aware of the MPLA’s commitment to help those who fought for the eradication of apartheid; therefore, the MPLA had to be destroyed. The South Africans bolstered Savimbi with economic and military aid.  But the South Africans did more than help Savimbi: they waged war on Angola for longer than a decade, sending their troops at will into the south of the country to defeat the MPLA.

South African President PW Botha visits Angolan Rebel leader Jonas Savimbi

South African President PW Botha visits UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi

Sandwiched between Angola and South Africa is Namibia. It had been a German colony before falling under a South  African mandate at the close of World War I. South Africa had subsequently ruled it its own province. In 1971 the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council had decreed Pretoria’s occupation of the country illegal and ordered it to withdraw immediately. South African officials knew that if Namibia were ever truly independent, it would have “an extremely negative impact on every front” for the apartheid regime. It would encourage “black militant groups in South Africa . . . [and] lead to a decline in white morale.”

In the shadows was the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the Namibian guerrilla movement that challenged Pretoria’s rule. SWAPO, a U.S. ambassador to South Africa wrote in 1977, “has, over the years, in the mind of the [Namibian] population come to symbolize independence, equal rights, and freedom from South Africa.” SWAPO, South African officials lamented, would win any free election; therefore, the UN-supervised elections that the international community demanded could never be allowed to happen.  South Africa would never give up Namibia unless they were militarily forced to.

The SWAPO guerrillas were based in Angola, where the MPLA government gave them what, a South African general wrote, “is virtually a prerequisite for a successful insurgent campaign, namely a border that provided safe refuge.” In Angola, the SWAPO guerrillas were trained by Cuban and Soviet instructors.

Like SWAPO, the African National Congress had its military camps in Angola where its fighters were also trained by Cuban instructors and armed by the Soviet Union.

Thus there was a complex and deadly interplay between Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. The MPLA helped SWAPO and the ANC, which fought against apartheid South Africa. The South Africans, in turn, wanted to topple the MPLA and hold on to Namibia.

The Cuban soldiers, armed by the Soviet Union, protected the MPLA government and thereby protected SWAPO and the ANC. Even the CIA acknowledged that the Cuban troops were “necessary to preserve Angolan independence.” Nevertheless, their presence there was intolerable to the US, which was seeing the world only through their Cold War-colored glasses.

It was through this lens that the US shamefully aided and supported the apartheid regime and its allies, while Cuba supported the anti-apartheid movement and its allies.

The first attacks were in 1983 and a full-scale battle took place in 1986 – the biggest battle in Africa since El Alamein in Egypt in 1942.

Cuba played a key role in deciding the fate of southern Africa. It was the Cubans who pushed the Soviets to help Angola. It was they who stood guard in Angola for years, thousands of miles from home, to prevent the South Africans from overthrowing the MPLA government.  It was they who in 1988, with the reinforcements Castro sent, forced South Africa to concede defeat at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, and in doing so, forced the South African army out of Angola.


It was Cuba’s victory in Angola in 1988 that forced Pretoria to abandon Savimbi and UNITA and hold free elections in Namibia – which SWAPO subsequently won.  It was they who ultimately forced both PW Botha and FW de Klerk to the negotiating table and helped break the back of apartheid South Africa.


Cuba ultimately ended its combat mission in Angola in 1991 after the South African military was defeated and forced to withdraw from Angola and grant independence to nearby Namibia.

In the words of Piero Gleijeses, “Cuba changed the course of history in southern Africa.”

Cuba played such an important role in helping bring down apartheid and free South Africa that Nelson Mandela traveled to the island in 1991 to publicly thank Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for their help.  During his speech, Mandela said it was the Cubans who “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.”

mandela and castro - 1991

Mandela and Castro in Cuba in 1991

“The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa,” Mandela continued. “In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours.”

According to Piero Gleijeses, “Cuba is the only country in the world that sent its soldiers to confront the army of apartheid and defeated the army of apartheid, the South African army, twice—in 1975-1976 and in 1988.”

Nelson Mandela clearly recognized this when he made Fidel Castro the guest of honor at his inauguration ceremony in 1994 upon being named South Africa’s first black president.

Thank you Cuba

Bloemfontein, South Africa — a banner thanking Cuba as part of the ANC Centenary in 2012

To learn more about the fascinating role that Castro and Cuba has played in southern Africa, check out the documentary, Cuba: An African Odyssey:

Cuba and Africa

The Eden Project: The latest attempt at creating a “White’s Only” enclave in South Africa

While it is certainly not new, it is nonetheless shocking that a fringe of the Afrikaner population in South Africa are still advocating for a “white’s only enclave” within the country.

This most recent movement, led by Jacqui Gradwell, vows to lead his people (the Afrikaners) away from oppression, much like the Voortrekkers of the 19th century. Afrikaner culture is under threat in the new South Africa, he reckons. White people face “genocide”. So Gradwell wants to lead like-minded whites—40,000 of them, he predicts—to a farm in a remote part of the Eastern Cape to live together in an agrarian idyll.


Jacqui Gradwell

This farm – a 5,700 acres site – is planned as a “whites-only” settlement dubbed “Project Eden.”  A total of 370 housing plots, two schools, an administration block and a rugby pitch have been pegged out in the first phase of development, which is yet to begin.

Gradwell claims that Afrikaners are the victims of “apartheid in reverse,” and therefore this planned project is perceived as an act of survival and freedom.  It was this same fear that drove the “white flight” out of South Africa in the aftermath of 1994 democratic elections.

I remember the statistics very well from my visit to the Voortrekker Monument’s Heritage Center in Pretoria. In their post-1994 section of the museum, where I thought I would see references to the election of Mandela and the birth of democracy. Instead, I was shocked to see exhibits on the “great poverty amongst whites” that had resulted from policies such as affirmative action.  The museum explained that life amongst Afrikaners was supposedly so bad with Mandela as president that one million whites (20% of the white population in the country) had left the country between 1995-2005.

According to the nationalist Afrikaners who stayed behind, Gradwell specifically cites “the murder of 88,000 white people” since the first free vote of 1994 as evidence of “a genocide against our people.”

Barry Kieser, 56, has been robbed at gunpoint 12 times in the last two years in what he believes is a “rising tide of hatred against whites” in South Africa.

Fearful for his safety, he is now planning a move to the controversial new community.

“Leaving our homes to be with our own people is the only way we can survive the growing tide of hatred against us,” Kieser says.

A return to the old way – when whites and non-white South Africans lived apart – “is the only way to preserve our culture,” Gradwell insists.

Gradwell is unapologetic that the qualification to be part of the Eden Project is based on race.

“They must be white because all the murders and all the violence in this country are perpetrated by black people,” the 55-year-old farmer says firmly.

“They must also be Christians and we intend to stick to that principle, we want to bring safety back to our own people,” Gradwell said.

“Seventy per cent of black South Africans live exclusively together in their own communities, in townships and so on. They don’t want white people to live among them. Why can’t we have the same thing?”

While Gradwell’s plan has generated many headlines, it has garnered little support. To date only 167 families have bought so-called “havens” in The Eden Project.

Disgruntled whites already have an enclave, but hardly anyone wants to live there either. Orania, an Afrikaner-only town in the Karoo desert, has been around since 1991. Despite impressive organization and towering ambitions (it has its own currency, the Ora, and a flag, which features a white boy rolling up his sleeves), it is home to just 1,100 people. Orania’s isolation has left it economically unattractive and politically irrelevant.

The chief executive of South Africa’s Institute for Race Relations said he had no issue with whites wanting to live apart.

“If people want to do their own thing and no one else is being harmed, then let them get on with it,” Frans Cronje said.

Cronje, however, says that “rank and file South Africans are actually pretty committed to making it work with each other.” A survey from the IRR found that 76% of South Africans thought race relations had improved or stayed the same since 1994, when apartheid ended. In another poll, 68% of respondents said that they expected a happy future for South Africans of all races.

Nonetheless, according to the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, more than half of South Africans barely interact with people of other races except when at work or while shopping.

The Tragic Story of “El Negro”


In the early 19th Century, it was fashionable for Europeans to collect wild animals from around the globe, bring them home and put them on display. One French dealer went further, bringing back the body of an adult African man.  Dutch writer Frank Westerman came across the exhibit in a Spanish museum 30 years ago, and was determined to trace the man’s history.

His name is not known, only his nickname: El Negro.

His fame comes from his posthumous travels – lasting 170 years – from Botswana to a museum exhibition in France and Spain. Generations of Europeans gaped at his half-naked body, which had been stuffed and mounted by a taxidermist. There he stood, nameless, exhibited like a trophy.

In the Darder Museum of Natural History in Banyoles, Spain, El Negro was prominently still on display in the 1980s.  In the museum, “El Negro” was displayed standing in a glass case in the middle of the carpet.


postcard of “El Negro” on display in a Spanish museum

As Westerman states, “This was not Madame Tussaud’s. I was not staring at an illusion of authenticity – this black man was neither a cast nor some kind of mummy. He was a human being, displayed like yet another wildlife specimen. History dictated that the taxidermist was a white European and his object a black African. The reverse was unimaginable.”

The story begins with Jules Verreaux, a French dealer in “naturalia”, who in 1831 witnessed the burial of a Tswana man present-day Botswana.  He returned at night to dig up the body and steal the skin, the skull and a few bones.

With the help of metal wire acting as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades, and stuffed with newspapers, Verreaux prepared and preserved the stolen body parts. Then he shipped him to Paris, along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates.

According to the French newspaper Le Constitutionnel, which was writing a review of “El Negro” on public display in France, the “individual of the Bechuana people” attracted more attention than the giraffes, hyenas or ostriches.

This disturbing scene is similar to that of Sarah Baartman.  Baartman was a young Khoisan woman cajoled into going to Europe in 1810 to publicly exhibit her body, which Europeans viewed as unique and exotic. Stage-named the “Hottentot Venus”, she was paraded around “freak shows” in London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks. She eventually came to the attention of scientists who wanted to study her.


Even after she died, her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried in South Africa until 2002.

Another similarity is what the Germans did with skulls of indigenous populations in their colonies in present-day Namibia.

In German concentration camps, female Herero and Nama prisoners were forced to boil the severed heads of their own people.  The skulls of the dead Herero and Nama were then placed in crates and shipped to museums, collections, and universities in Germany.

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This practice was started by Eugen Fischer, a prominent German anthropologist, who first went to Namibia in 1904 wanting evidence to show that racial degeneration was real.

German South West Africa became a field laboratory of German racial scientists in the early 1900s, led by Fischer.

As late as 2008, Freiburg University still had 12 skulls from Namibia, and the Medical History Museum of Berlin’s Charitie Hospital had 47 Namibian skulls.

In October 2008, the Namibian government formally requested the repatriation of all Namibian remains still held in German universities. These skulls, eventually sent back to Namibia, received a proper burial in the land of their birth, and finally, the chance to rest in peace and dignity.

For “El Negro,” more than a century after his original display he was still in a Spanish museum.

Everything began to shift in 1992 when there were increasing calls El Negro should be removed from the museum. The Olympic Games were coming to Barcelona that year and the lake of Banyoles was the venue for the rowing competitions. Surely, any athletes and spectators who visited the local museum would take offense at the sight of a stuffed black man.

These calls were supported by prominent figures such as the US pastor Jesse Jackson and basketball player Magic Johnson. Kofi Annan, then still Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, condemned the exhibit as “repulsive” and “barbarically insensitive”.

But due to heavy resistance among the Catalan people, who embraced El Negro as a “national” treasure, it was not until March 1997 that El Negro disappeared from public view and was put into storage. Three years later, in 2000, he began his final journey home.

Spain had agreed to repatriate the human remains to Botswana for a ceremonial reburial.

The remains of the Tswana man lay in state for a day in the capital Gaborone, where an estimated 10,000 people walked past to pay their last respects, before he was laid to rest.


The story of “El Negro,” as well as that of Sarah Baartman and countless others, are representatives of the darkest aspects of Europe’s colonial past.  They represented theories of “scientific racism” – the classification of people according to their supposed inferiority or superiority on the basis of skull measurements and other false assumptions

Today they are seen by many as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, of the ridicule and commodification of black people.

How big is Africa?

Maps are political and influence how we perceive the world, especially the map that was most widely used in schools throughout the 20th century.

In the 16th century, a Belgian cartographer developed a new map predominantly designed for sailors at the height of European exploration.  The map that Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) created became the standard map projection for nautical purposes.  His 1569 world map became known as the Mercator map projection.


As someone who originally made globes, Mercator took a unique approach to converting a three-dimensional curved surface to a flat sheet of paper. Taking the equator as the logical map center left big, confusing gaps near the poles. Mercator’s solution was to stretch out the northern and southern extremities of the globe to fill those gaps, producing an elegant and usable map.

He drew longitude and latitude as straight lines (as opposed to curved lines) that cross at right angles.  This had the benefit of helping sailors to navigate the seas as it accurately depicted the shapes and directions of landmasses.

While a revolutionary tool for captains and explorers, the projection distorts the relative size of the continents, to the advantage of the West.

The repercussions of this are still being felt today.

On the Mercator map, Africa is left looking much smaller than it really is, and as a result, the interpretation is that it is less important and influential.

But Canada, Russia, the United States and Europe are greatly enlarged, and therefore more important and powerful.

That European and North American countries are enlarged is no accident. This system provided more space for Western cartographers to mark towns, cities, and roads in their part of the world, says Menno-Jan Kraak, president of the International Cartographic Association and professor of cartography at the University of Twente, Netherlands.

“If you would take a map projection with equal areas then there is almost no space on the map to display all [these details].”

There was, of course, much to map in Africa, too, but that mattered less to the cartographers up north, he adds.

One of the dangers of the Mercator map is that it can make enlarged countries seem unnaturally powerful and intimidating.

“The term ‘power of representation and representation of power’ sums up quite well how maps and the rise of the Western nation-state system — and with that, empire and colonialism — are linked,” says Marianne Franklin, professor of Global Media and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Not only was this map useful to 16th century sailors, but it also became the standard map projection of the world for centuries.

“Somehow this map projection came to be used on most world maps, especially those produced for classrooms since the beginning of the 1900s,” says Kraak. “Most of us have grown up with this world image.”

Mercator maps “continues (to prevail) despite many challenges to their fairness and accuracy because they underpin the ongoing Anglo-Euro-American presumption that the world belongs to them, and pivots around these geo-cultural axes,” Franklin says.

In reality, Africa is a massive continent, and the more area-accurate Peters Projection Map demonstrates this.


Area-accurate Peters Projection Map overlaid with the Mercator Projection Map

On the Mercator map, Africa is perceived to be the same size as Greenland. In truth, Greenland is no bigger than the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China, the United States, India, Mexico, and all of Western and Eastern Europe combined could all geographically fit inside the borders of Africa.

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Check out the difference between the size of Africa on a Mercator map compared with more area-accurate maps.

How we see regions on the map affects how we perceive them.  It is time that we start accurately displaying the true size of the continent of Africa.



South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist

Twenty years ago, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Josia Thugwane shocked his nation by becoming the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, Thugwane “reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josia had to overcome more than just his competitors in the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, but also the segregation and oppression of apartheid that he had grown up under.

While trying to earn a living by gardening for an older woman in 1988, Josia asked a join a local running team that was sponsored by a mining company.  With no formal education and no running shoes, Josia saw this as an opportunity.  At 18, he was given a job as a janitor, mopping floors and cleaning rooms for the mining company in a coal mine hostel, and was allowed to train with the company’s running team.

But even running was segregated in apartheid South Africa.

During apartheid, whites generally had the access to technical instruction, equipment and running tracks that were forbidden to blacks. In all of what was formerly considered black South Africa, there is only one all-weather running surface, in the township of Soweto. Blacks generally took to road racing, where shoes were the only equipment needed and bare feet would often suffice.

Still, blacks suffered legislated discrimination. In the past, black runners were frequently stopped by police for running through white areas without carrying their identification papers.

Josia quickly became one of the best long-distance runners in the country, and in 1993 he won the national marathon championship in Cape Town and eventually earned a spot on the South Africa Olympic team for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.  He was thrilled to be able to run for Mandela – the man who freed all South Africans just two years earlier when he was elected president of the country.

At the Olympics, he was so much of an underdog in the marathon that not one journalist managed to ask him before the race what a win would mean.

But here was Josia, a black man, running for Mandela — running the race of the ancients.  A black man, running away from his homeland’s sad racial past — running toward a reformed South Africa.

If he won, not since Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936 or aboriginal 400-meter runner Cathy Freeman won gold in Sydney in 2000, could a more powerful racial message be sent on an Olympic track.

South Africa’s first healing, unifying moment on the sporting stage had come the year before, when the Springboks stunningly won the Rugby World Cup. Mandela partnered with the team’s white captain, Francois Pienaar, to unite the country behind the most popular sport of white South Africans. Months later, in January 1996, South Africa won the African Cup of Nations for the first time, inspiring whites to unite behind the mostly black national soccer team.

But no black South African had ever won an individual gold medal on the Olympic stage; government money had scarcely been used to develop anyone but South Africa’s white athletes.

Never had just one black man faced the possibility of millions of white South Africans on the brink of euphoria if he could medal.

In a stunning upset, Josia won the marathon by just 3 seconds in what was the closest finish in Olympic marathon history.

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Josia had become South Africa’s first black Olympic gold medalist.

In South Africa, they poured out of the black townships, out of the gated white neighborhoods, out of malls and restaurants, off the motorways into filling stations – all celebrating the glory of one man, one flag.

“I won this gold medal for the people of South Africa. I also won this gold medal for President Nelson Mandela. His efforts to end apartheid have made us free – free to run, free to be part of the international community.  Without him, I would not be standing here today as Olympic champion,” Thugwane said.

Penny Heyns And Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela with Josia Thugwane after winning the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics

“It is an indication to others that if we work hard, all of us have equal opportunity, not like in the past.”

Josia Thugwane came home to two weeks of celebrations, parades and honorary dinners. Nelson Mandela even said of Thugwane’s historic victory, “He is our golden boy and he has reinforced our pride and confidence as a nation.”

Josiah Thugwane

Tony Longhurst, Thugwane’s agent, said, “For a country that has been through so much political turmoil, this is a huge hope for the future. We can have heroes who don’t have to be black or white. They can be South Africans.”

South Africa’s troubled history with the Olympics

As the Rio Olympics near, another opportunity presents itself to look back at South Africa’s conflicted experience with the Olympics, from being banned from the Games for decades to their triumphant return.

While most countries take for granted their right to compete among the world’s best every four years, South Africa knows what it is like to be an outcast on this world stage.  As a result of the almost universal condemnation and abhorrence of apartheid, South Africa was banned from the Olympics from 1964 until 1992.

One of the greatest weapons in the struggle against apartheid was the international sports boycott.  These boycotts included both foreign countries and individual athletes from abroad refusing to play in South Africa and South African teams and athletes being prohibited from playing in other countries.  Specific sports bodies, for example, FIFA and the Davis Cup, also banned South Africa and its athletes from taking part in tournaments and even being part of these associations due to apartheid.  South Africa was almost entirely isolated from the international sports world as a result of apartheid, affecting boxing, soccer, rugby, cricket, tennis, and golf, among others.

But the largest and most prominent sports ban was from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

South Africa’s rigid sports apartheid had been applied since the National Party came to power in 1948, and it included segregation in sports fields, seating in stadiums, and especially on teams and clubs.  Not only were “non-European” South Africans banned from being part of national and local teams, but South Africa even refused at times to play against multiracial teams from other countries.



The campaign to prevent South Africa from taking part in the Olympics started in the early 1960s, led primarily by Dennis Brutus.  Brutus, one of the first sports social activists, saw the power sport had to change society, and he recognized and channeled the power of sport in the fight against apartheid.  In 1962, he helped set up the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC), as opposed to the white-only government sports bodies, which spearheaded the international sports boycott against apartheid South Africa.


Dennis Brutus

It was Dennis Brutus who, in 1963, wrote to members of the IOC urging them to join the struggle against racist sport in South Africa.  Brutus gathered support from other African nations, who supported both the ban on apartheid sport and South Africa’s dismissal from the Olympics.

Brutus and others focused on the Olympic Charter, which specifically prohibits “discrimination…against any country or person on grounds of race, religion or political affiliation.”  They hoped that if enough countries called for South Africa to be banned from the Games, then the IOC would have to take action.

The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo were the first Games where South Africa was banned. The IOC made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa when the South African government insisted that the team would not be racially integrated.


As Dennis Brutus points out, “[Sport] was the first area in which apartheid was successfully challenged, and it sent an absolute earthquake through white South Africa.”

The IOC said the decision could be overturned only if South Africa renounced racial discrimination in sport and opposed the ban in its own country on competition between white and black athletes.

At the next Summer Olympic Games, in 1968 in Mexico City,  the IOC was prepared to readmit South Africa after assurances that its team would be multi-racial. The IOC visited South Africa and presented a favorable report, stating that they had undertaken to send a multiracial team, selected on merit, to the Olympic Games. Their invitation to take part in the Games, however, elicited such sharp protests from many African countries and others, with 38 countries threatening to boycott the Games if South Africa was allowed to participate.  The IOC thus made the decision to withdraw its invitation to South Africa, preventing them from taking part in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

It was finally in 1970 when the IOC took the decision to formally expel South Africa from the IOC, preventing their participation in any future Olympic Games.

In South Africa, some athletes, however, were able to compete in the Olympics after leaving the country and gaining citizenship in other countries, including Zola Budd (Britain) and Sydney Maree (United States) in 1984.

The Olympic condemnation over apartheid continued despite South Africa’s ban. In the 1976 Montreal games,South Africa’s apartheid again brought controversy to the Olympics. Earlier that year, New Zealand’s rugby team had undertaken a three-month rugby tour of segregated South Africa.  This rugby tour prompted dozens of African countries to demand that the New Zealand Olympic team be excluded from the games. The IOC chose not to exclude New Zealand on the grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport.

As a result, protests against their participation spread.  In the end, 28 nations boycotted the Games in response to New Zealand’s inclusion.

The Olympic ban on South Africa was only lifted prior to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the international community became convinced that South Africa was irrevocably on the road to political transformation and democracy.

While the country’s first democratic elections were still two years away, it was deemed that the apartheid government had shown efforts to bring an end to apartheid in the country. In 1991, the Population Registration Act, a cornerstone of apartheid legislation, was repealed by the government of F. W. de Klerk, and a nonracial national Olympic committee was formed and recognized in South Africa.

Interestingly, at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the official flag of South Africa and anthem Die Stem were still the apartheid-era ones, but the Olympic team competed under an interim flag and used Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their interim anthem.

Apartheid victims lose 14-year legal battle against Ford and IBM

In a unique and complex legal battle, a 1789 law in the United States and apartheid have been linked up in the U.S. court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court, for over a decade.

The case has its roots in South African apartheid victims seeking compensation and reparations for abuses, oppression, discrimination, and violence during the apartheid era. Their focus, however, was not solely on individuals and organization in South Africa, but also multinational corporations who did business with South Africa in this era, thus profiting from apartheid’s system of cheap labor and thus propping up the apartheid state and aiding and abetting the perpetuation of gross human rights violations during apartheid.

In 2002, apartheid victims filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S.  The case was brought by several South Africans, including Lungisile Ntsebeza, whose brother Dumisa Ntsebeza is one of the lawyers in the case.  Several of them were former employees of Ford who were arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protests to the apartheid government.

The case went through the U.S. court system, and eventually all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case this week.

The denial by the Supreme Court this week means that an earlier ruling by the lower US District Court stands – that IBM and Ford could not be held liable, in US courts, for actions by its subsidiaries based in South Africa in favor of the apartheid regime.

The South Africans sued the corporations under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a U.S. law enacted in 1789, which allows non-citizens to pursue civil claims in US district courts for violations of international law or US treaties. Initially, 23 companies had been sued for having relations with the apartheid regime, including Citigroup, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, General Electric, ExxonMobil, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler.

Since 1980, US courts have interpreted the statute to allow foreign citizens to sue for human-rights violations that may have occurred outside of the United States. However, the Supreme Court has never specified if corporations can be held liable for their actions under this law.

Additionally, it is still unclear if entities can be held liable for actions that did not occur in the United States. In the absence of a final decision on that question, lower courts have required varying degrees of the planning of human rights violations to have actually occurred in the United States.

As a result, by 2013, claims had been dismissed against all corporations, except for Ford and IBM, due to an inability to prove that the corporations had planned their human rights violations within the United States.

Support for the plaintiffs came from a variety of organizations, including former Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, various human rights NGOs, COSATU, and the South African Council of Churches. Former US Ambassador David Scheffer even submitted a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the plaintiffs.

The government of South Africa was initially opposed to the lawsuit, claiming that it would damage foreign investor perceptions of the country. However, in 2009, the government officially reversed its position. In a letter to the United States Supreme Court, Minister of Justice Jeffrey Radebe stated that his government was of the view that the “[Supreme] Court is the appropriate forum to hear the remaining claims of aiding and abetting in violation of international law.”

In their arguments to the Second Circuit Court, Ntsebeza and the others argued that Ford and IBM should be held accountable as they were “U.S. corporations that, through their conduct in the United States, provided direct support to the South African government during apartheid and/or were purposefully complicit in the human rights violations committed by the apartheid government and security forces…[and] produced the very products that enabled the apartheid government to run and maintain the apartheid system and to oppress, control, suppress, intimidate, denationalize, and otherwise violate the rights of black South Africans.”

They claim that Ford’s US board made key decisions to manufacture specialized vehicles for apartheid security forces in violation of US sanctions and retaliated against employees who took part in anti-apartheid protests.

IBM, they say, provided database and information storage services that were key to the apartheid government implementing their race-based classification system.

Several of the South Africans in the court case were former employees of Ford who had been arrested and tortured after Ford released information about protest activities to the apartheid government. They believe that Ford and IBM’s US supervision of South African subsidiaries was a strong enough connection to allow the companies to be prosecuted under the Alien Tort Statute.

In their submitted briefs, Ford and IBM did not deny that their South African subsidiaries had helped the apartheid government. But they argued that they could not be held liable in the United States, as general supervision of their South African subsidiaries was not a strong enough connection to establish that the US headquarters had planned and supported the human rights violations.

Additionally, they contended that the statute did not allow for corporate liability, especially when the corporation that had committed the violations were based in another country (as their subsidiaries technically were).

In August 2014, US District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin dismissed the claims on grounds that the statute did not allow for corporations to be held liable, when all relevant violations of international law had taken place outside of the United States. In her opinion she stated, “that these plaintiffs are left without relief in an American court is regrettable” but said she was bound to follow previous cases, “no matter what my personal view of the law may be.”

In February 2016, Ntsebeza’s legal team wrote a petition to the Supreme Court, appealing against the dismissal of their case. They highlighted inconsistent standards among lower courts on what actually constitutes “aiding and abetting in human rights violations” and they asked the Supreme Court to answer the fundamental question of whether corporations can be held liable under the Statute.

The denial of appeal means the Supreme Court did not see this as a strong enough court case or did not want to answer either of those questions. As it is the highest court in the United States, Ford and IBM are officially free from the civil action by Ntsebeza.