July 18th marks Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. It brings to mind another birthday of his when he was still imprisoned by the apartheid government of Pretoria. The year was 1986. Inside South Africa, waves of protests were sweeping the country. In June of that year, a second state of emergency had been declared and thousands were arrested.
Internationally, anti-apartheid efforts were intensifying as broad grassroots movements began to influence government policies. In the United States, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act overriding then President Ronald Reagan’s veto. The 1986 law imposed sanctions against South Africa and banned new trade and investment. It was also a catalyst for similar bans in Europe and Asia.
In Cuba, support for the struggle against apartheid was already a cornerstone of the island’s foreign policy. A decade earlier, then President Fidel Castro’s speech commemorating the anniversary of Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) declared proudly how Cuba’s military troops had fought alongside Angolan liberation fighters to resist a South African invasion:
“In commemorating this 15th Anniversary of the heroic and glorious victory at Girón, our people have an additional reason for pride, expressed in their most beautiful internationalist sentiments and which transcends the boundaries of this continent: the historic victory of the people of Angola, to whom we offered the generous and unrestricted solidarity of our Revolution.
At Girón, African blood was shed, that of the selfless descendants of a people who were slaves before they became workers, and who were exploited workers before they became masters of their homeland. And in Africa, alongside the heroic fighters of Angola, Cuban blood also flowed, that of the sons of Marti, Maceo and Agramonte, that of the internationalist heirs of Gomez and Ché Guevara. Those who once enslaved man and sent him to America perhaps never imagined that one of those peoples who received the slaves would one day send their fighters to struggle for freedom in Africa.”
In 1986, I was working at Radio Havana Cuba. This was before the era of the Internet and one of the ways people got international news was via shortwave radio broadcasts. There were dozens of stations broadcasting to foreign audiences in multiple languages. The United States had Voice of America. Great Britain had BBC World Service. There was Radio Moscow from the former Soviet Union and countless others worldwide. Radio Havana Cuba broadcast daily in nine languages: Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Arabic, Quechua, Guarani, Creole, and Esperanto.
Several of my co-workers at the station had been among those troops who had fought in Angola. I still remember one haunting story they told me. They came upon a village that had suffered a horrible massacre at the hands of retreating South African troops. In a trench, they had found dozens of bodies, Angolan men and women who had been gunned down. But there were no children. As the Cubans began to search among the bodies for survivors, they came upon the children. The adults had thrown their bodies over the children to shield them from the South African bullets. Many of these boys and girls did in fact survive.
Cuba’s solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement was manifested in countless ways. And I was fortunate to be part of one of them: a week-long radio broadcast that would include anti-apartheid messages and birthday greetings for Nelson Mandela from people all over the world. Radio Havana Cuba would transmit directly into South Africa and hopefully into Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. We knew he was able to listen to shortwave radio broadcasts.
“I’m calling for Stevland Morris.”
“I’ll put you through to his room,” said the hotel operator.
After days of missed encounters, I couldn’t believe I might actually get through.
“Hello?” Someone answered in a hotel room thousands of miles away.
“Yes, I’m calling from Radio Havana Cuba for Stevland Morris…”
“One moment please….”
This was finally it! I had gotten through to Stevie Wonder and was about to interview him as part of the special radio broadcast.
I asked him, as we asked each person we interviewed by phone, about their involvement with anti-apartheid efforts in their country. And each person was asked to direct a personal birthday message to Mandela. When I asked Stevie what he wanted to say to the anti-apartheid leader on the occasion of his birthday, he broke into song: ”I just called to say I love you…”
I was taken aback. I had expected a powerful greeting but never expected Stevie Wonder to sing his message to Nelson Mandela. I made sure the sound levels were just right on my tape recorder, knowing it was capturing a historic moment.
For over a month, leading up to July 18, 1986, Radio Havana journalists contacted people all over the world. We interviewed other U.S. cultural figures like author Alice Walker and actor/singer Harry Belafonte. We spoke with world political leaders like Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Rev. Jesse Jackson of the United States. We even spoke with prominent leaders from the African National Congress like Winnie Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa.
We interviewed grassroots anti-apartheid activists from Australia to North America, from Asia to Europe to Latin America. One the most memorable was when we called a prearranged phone booth in London (this was also before the era of cell phones) and spoke with folks on an anti-apartheid picket line who had collectively chanted their birthday wishes to Mandela.
Other departments at the radio station got involved as well and there were interviews in Spanish, Creole, Portuguese, Quechua, French and Arabic. We translated these into English and recorded the voiceovers for inclusion in the broadcast. Our able sound engineers, those Cuban volunteers who served in Angola mentioned above, mixed the interviews with music and the birthday wishes.
In all, there were some 140 interviews and the week-long broadcast was transmitted to South Africa as well as all over the world. At Cuba’s 1987 National Radio Festival, Radio Havana was honored with Special Prize for the programming. But for us, the greatest reward was bringing together so many diverse voices, each representing hundreds if not thousands of others, who were working across the globe in a powerful show of international solidarity with the people of South Africa working to topple apartheid.
Three years later, in 1990, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released. In 1994, he was elected President in South Africa’s first free election. This was a major victory for freedom-loving people the world over.
Today, when we see voting rights gutted in our own country and young black men gunned down on the streets or locked up in prison, it’s good to remember that we have had some victories in recent memory. Nelson Mandela inspires us to carry on, to gather strength from the struggles of the people of southern Africa against racism and apartheid. And that perhaps, is his birthday gift to the world as we celebrate his 95th birthday.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
Felicia Gustin has been with War Times since the beginning. She currently works at SpeakOut, a national organization working primarily with colleges, universities, and high schools and dedicated to the advancement of education, racial and social justice, leadership development and activism. She is a long-time activist in international solidarity, peace, racial justice and labor movements. She was a journalist for 10 years in Cuba and is currently working on several projects - an historical memoir and a poetry collection, among others.
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