With 126 South African medical students on their way to Cuba, on medical bursaries from the South Africa-Cuba Medical Programme, the following questions about the Cuban-South African approximation need to be addressed. What does the relationship offer broadly being embedded in the global South? Are the ideological and sentimental bonds as strong as before? And how does the South African-American relationship impact on the Cuban-South African relationship?
Noting that Mandela visited Cuba in 1991 and stated, "We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba ... What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?", one clearly understands and values the historical-political connections between South Africa and Cuba. Currently, South Africa is Cuba's biggest African trade partner and also for the Caribbean region as a whole. This provides South Africa with a relatively larger political and diplomatic leverage compared to most African states.
The contemporary area of cooperation that dominates the discourse about Cuban-South African relations is that of medical and health related exchanges. Modest attention, however, seems to be devoted to understanding how the Cuban-American relationship impacts on the Cuban-South African relationship, in the South African foreign policy circles. One would presume due to the tense nature of the American-Cuban standoff that has been on-going for decades, that commentary from Washington would be significantly less amicable than usual with reference to Pretoria's relations with Havana.
The characteristic of the Cuban-South African approximation that currently garners attention in South Africa is the medical and health cooperation, such as Cuba offering tertiary medical education opportunities to South African students. This may be viewed as the defining bilateral characteristic of the Cuban-South African approximation. Health diplomacy should therefore become the pillar around which to deepen South Africa's relations with Cuba, the Caribbean and Africa. The grounding of this relationship in health diplomacy will conform to the context and vision of South Africa's foreign policy of Ubuntu and Batho Pele both on a ideological and pragmatic level as health issues and innovations are directly associated with people and their well-being. Therefore South Africa should proceed to leverage its relations with Cuba in order to develop its own health capacity and health diplomacy, as well as putting health sector reform on the global South and African Union's agenda as one of the most pressing concerns.
The Cuban-South African relationship has grown into a collective ideological basis of resistance and social development that increasingly incorporates aspects of economics and health. Furthermore, the ideological basis of this relationship has been encouraged through the multilateral platform that is the Group of 77 plus China (G77+ China). As part of the G77+China, a commitment to "living well" that has been entrenched as part of the Declaration of Santa Cruz, the Cuban-South African relationship will be symbolic in representation and progressive in action for both the Caribbean dominated by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Africa as a whole, and in general the global South. This relationship has enhanced South Africa's soft power and has provided South Africa with the opportunity to establish itself as the African power within Latin America and the Caribbean, in respect of trade, research and political "attractiveness". Uniquely, South Africa has not felt nor shown any pressure to fall in line with the American foreign policy approach towards Cuba, and neither has this impacted on South Africa's relationship with the USA.
Condemnation arising from Pretoria due to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) actions and by implication the Washington's actions in Libya, culminating in airstrikes and the removal of Muammar Gaddafi has been more forthcoming, than condemnation for the American foreign policy approach adopted towards Cuba over the past decades. This either demonstrates South Africa's appreciation of American interests in its immediate "neighbourhood" or a lack of South African interest in Cuba's challenges if it conflicts with South Africa's own strategic interests in the Caribbean and the Americas.
In conclusion, Cuba's emergence as a major actor in global health diplomacy such as sending health workers to combat diseases and provide training to Latin American, Caribbean and African states should be leveraged effectively. The lack of constraints imposed on the relationship between Cuba and South Africa, particularly from the USA as a key player in the global health system, should therefore encourage the two states to not only pursue health diplomacy in their bilateral relations, but that this relationship, in the interest of the development and progress of the global South largely, can be elevated to the multilateral level in acknowledgement of "living well", Ubuntu and Batho Pele.
Mr Wayne Jumat is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD, Unisa.