Beware SA’s shenanigans with other countries behind our backs

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Beware SA’s shenanigans with other countries behind our backs

The recruitment of Cuban engineers and doctors makes political sense and nothing else

Columnist
An excavator clears debris at the Sebokeng water treatment works. The government has brought 24 Cubans into the country to improve wastewater treatment facilities, much to the consternation of local engineers.
DIGGING A HOLE An excavator clears debris at the Sebokeng water treatment works. The government has brought 24 Cubans into the country to improve wastewater treatment facilities, much to the consternation of local engineers.
Image: Alaister Russell

From start to finish, the government decision to invite Cuban engineers to fix our water problems was a case study in political deception. It made no technical sense since SA has some of best trained engineers on the continent. It made little financial sense since the budget for the project involving 24 Cuban engineers was a staggering R64,652,000.  It made no developmental sense in a Covid economy where experts estimate that about 2,000 SA engineers are unemployed. And it made no educational sense since engineers from outside the country need to be registered with the engineering council or be supervised by a registered engineer – the latter requirement defeating the apparent “skills transfer” purpose of the Cuban visitors.

What on Earth is going on here? This is an example of your government doing things behind your back with reckless disregard for the fact that you as a taxpayer are footing the bill. Thankfully, the media seized upon this wasteful decision and made a public fuss about the mess. Caught off guard, the minister offered the defence that the Cubans came because SA engineers are not keen to work in rural areas. Of course, this is nonsense; an unemployed engineer would work on the moon if necessary, and the few engineering professionals I know work in rural areas anyway because that is what they do.

Like the scandal of the Cuban engineers, the deadly Bangui military adventure is not about water supply or the acquisition of minerals.

The recruitment of Cuban engineers and doctors makes political sense and nothing else. I was deeply moved by Raymond Suttner’s recent essay in New Frame on the strong emotional bonds and political debt that the ruling party believes it owes the Cubans for “their critical role ... in the defeat of the apartheid defence force ... in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale”. By the way, the claimed ideological connection between the two countries, while helpful for some of our communists, is entirely opportunistic. We are no more communist in any segment of our society than the Freedom Front stands for land redistribution without compensation.

The connection between the two countries was very much evident in the special relationship between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, the principled Madiba making a point of visiting Cuba soon after his release from prison in recognition of the island nation’s anti-apartheid solidarity over the fighting decades. Thousands of Cuban military personnel had sacrificed their lives in the Angolan theatre of war.

By hiring Cuban professionals, the SA government is therefore repaying a debt to a country whose economy has long been strangled by the relentless anticommunist stance of successive US administrations. The foreign currency Cuba earns from SA for training our medical students there and bringing their professionals here, alleviates to some degree the severe hardships of isolation and sanction from the West.

To be honest, I have no problem with our government expressing social and economic solidarity with Cuba. I like the idea of exchanging knowledge and ideas between our two countries in health, education and engineering. But do not lie to your people about the reason for spending more than R64m on citizens of a country more than 12,000km away. Do not insult our engineers by suggesting they need an injection of skills from far away. And do not mislead the public by claiming that there is no appetite among our professionals for rural deployment.

There is a very apt phrase I learnt about this kind of skulduggery from another country: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” and that is what should concern us as South African citizens. At about the time the Cuban engineering story broke, I started to read a new book about one of the most disturbing but little-known scandals in which, once again, our government committed a terrible deed behind our backs.

Ever heard of a city called Bangui or for that matter the Central African Republic? Well, this is where then president Jacob Zuma sent 200 underequipped SANDF soldiers to fight 7,000 rebels in defence of a brutal dictator without informing parliament. Of course, we lost and more importantly, 15 SA soldiers would eventually die. This stunning new book, The Battle of Bangui, lays out in meticulous detail the little-known facts about our government’s bungling that had nothing to do with SA’s strategic, diplomatic or political interests and a lot to do with greed and corruption concerning oil, uranium and diamond deals that – surprise, surprise – had some connection to the Guptas, the Zumas and their associates.

Like the scandal of the Cuban engineers, the deadly Bangui military adventure is not about water supply or the acquisition of minerals. It is about what happens when your government deceives you by not telling the truth about what it does in your name and squanders limited resources and precious lives in the process. That should concern all of us.

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