We were privileged recently to make a highly successful state visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This was the first time that I and many in our delegation had occasion to be in a country that had inspired us, for many decades, with an unprecedented example of heroism and self-sacrifice in the struggle for freedom and national independence.
As we grew up in our own liberation movement and struggle, we accepted at least two of Vietnam's outstanding leaders, the late President Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho), and General Giap, as our own leaders. Constantly, we sought to understand what they stood for, what they said, and what they did, because we felt that all this was directly relevant to the victory of our own struggle.
As members of the ANC Youth League and Youth and Student Section, we drew inspiration from the fact that in 1954 the Vietnamese people had scored a famous victory against the French colonial forces at Dien Bien Phu. For our education about this and other matters pertaining to the progressive struggle at home and abroad, we were privileged to have access to the progressive newspaper, New Age, until it was banned.
Among my treasured souvenirs from the visit to Vietnam are some books by General Giap, the great military leader who led the Vietnamese armed forces in the titanic struggles stretching over a period of 30 years, from 1945, during which they defeated first the French armed forces in 1954, and then the US armed forces in 1975.
In many ways, the victories of the Vietnamese people against the major world powers during the 20th century echoed the historic successes scored by the African slaves of Haiti at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, when they defeated the Spanish, British and French military machines.
Surely, one day, when we act to expose our youth to the historic struggles of the oppressed for their liberation, we will communicate the unequivocal message that the victories in Haiti and Vietnam occupy pride of place among the great moments that they and all freedom-loving people should celebrate for all time.
Dien Bien Phu
In his book "People's War, People's Army", first published in 1974, General Giap writes: "The French imperialists were getting more bogged down in their unjust war of aggression. American aid, which covered 15 percent of French war expenditure in 1950 and 1951, rose to 35 percent in 1952, 45 percent in 1953, and reaching 80 percent in 1954. Despite increasing levels of aid, the situation of the French Expeditionary Corps remained hopeless...
"By launching successive, strong offensives on their more exposed positions we struck numerous blows that forced (the French) to scatter their troops all over Viet Nam and Laos. In doing so, we created favourable conditions for our attack on Dien Bien Phu, the most powerful entrenched camp in Indochina, considered invulnerable by the Franco-American general staff. Having decided to take the enemy by the throat at Dien Bien Phu, we mustered our forces there and, to guarantee victory for our frontline, mobilised the human and material resources of the free zone.
"After 55 days and nights of fighting, the Viet Nam People's Army accomplished the greatest military feat of the war of liberation: the entire French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was annihilated. This great campaign, which altered the course of the war, contributed decisively to the eventual signing of the Geneva Agreements, (which provided for)...the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos...
"Under the leadership of the Party headed by President Ho Chi Minh, we can say with pride that we established a great truth: when a colonised and weak people rises up, united and determined, to fight for its independence and peace, it is capable of defeating a strong aggressive army of an imperialist country.
"Thus, Dien Bien Phu was a victory not only for our people, but also for peoples everywhere struggling to throw off the yoke of colonialism and imperialism. Therefore, its anniversary is a day not only for our people to rejoice but for the peoples of fraternal nations, for those who have just won back their independence, and for those who are still fighting for their liberation.
"Dien Bien Phu is forever recorded in the annals of the national and worldwide peoples struggle for liberation. History will record it as one of the crucial events in the popular movement of Asia, Africa and Latin America where people have been fighting to become rulers of their own destiny...
"Our experience at Dien Bien Phu taught us that: A small, weak nation and a people's army, once resolved to stand up, unite and fight for independence and peace, are fully capable of defeating any aggressive force, even the imperialist power, France, aided by the United States."
Museum of War Remnants
We ended our visit to Vietnam with a haunting visit to a museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). This was the Museum of War Remnants. Here we did not see remnants of the war against the French Expeditionary Force that was defeated at Dien Bien Phu.
Rather, we were exposed to harrowing pictures and evocative remnants of the US war of aggression against the Vietnamese people. Shortly before we left Saigon and Vietnam, we spent a few minutes in a hotel from whose balcony we saw the place from which, in 1975, the then remaining US troops had fled by helicopter as the victorious Vietnamese patriotic forces took control of Saigon, having defeated the strong Vietnamese satellite forces trained and armed by the US and used as its ally.
Photographs of that hurried helicopter evacuation featured on the walls of the Museum of War Remnants. There were also other photographs which took us back to the days of the height of both the Vietnam War and the international Vietnam solidarity movement during the 1960s and 1970s.
These included the picture of a Vietnamese woman with a rifle pressed against her temple, a naked Vietnamese girl suffering from napalm burns fleeing down a road, a mound of dead bodies of Vietnamese civilians whose needless death was described as collateral damage, a landscape turned desolate by toxic defoliants, and a picture of smiling US soldiers at whose feet rested a row of heads without bodies, mute witnesses to the decapitation of Vietnamese patriots that had already taken place.
Distraught at the story that had come alive as we viewed the exhibits at the Museum of War Remnants, one of the members of our delegation said - this is not a good way to end our visit to Vietnam! This brought fully into focus the enormous cost that had been imposed on the Vietnamese people as they were forced to take to war to secure their freedom and independence, the reunification of their country, and, hopefully, lasting peace for themselves.
When the French accepted defeat after Dien Bien Phu, signed the the Geneva Agreements and left Indochina, the US refused to accept this outcome. It believed that whereas France had failed to impose its will on the Vietnamese people, it had the will and the means to achieve what the French had failed to realise. Out of this was born the horrendous US war against Vietnam.
The destructive fury of war
During this war, the volume of US bombs dropped on Vietnam was twice the amount of all munitions used by all belligerents during the Second World War. The eight-year bombing campaign of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the North), destroyed up to 80% of its industrial capacity.
Two million people were killed, and two million injured and disabled. One million women were widowed. One million children were orphaned. 25,000 sq km of agricultural land was sprayed with 71,000 tons of toxic defoliants. Chemical bombs turned hundreds of thousands of hectares of the country's forests barren and infertile, leaving the Vietnamese people with the terrible legacy of having to cope with the after effects of chemical poisoning.
But despite this enormous destruction and all the superior power at its disposal, in the end the US had to reach an agreement with the Vietnamese patriots to end the war and to leave Vietnam. On 27 January 1973, Dr Henry Kissinger signed the Paris Agreement on Vietnam on behalf of the US government.
In his book, "The General Headquarters in the Spring of Brilliant Victory", General Giap reports that one of Dr Kissinger's assistants complained - "We have bombed North Vietnam, and now we ourselves agree to make concessions."
In the same book, General Giap wrote: "On March 29, 1973, the US military command in Saigon held a 'roll-down-the-flag' ceremony. On our beloved land, the foreign aggressors were swept away in the main."
Further on he writes: "Many people have asked these questions: why have the Vietnamese people, without possessing so much as an inch of steel, been able to stand tall, smash the shackles of slavery, vanquish two imperialist giants in unequal wars, gain back their lost lands, and march forward to social and human liberation?...
"In November 1995, by US proposal, I received Mr Robert McNamara, the former Defence Secretary under President Kennedy and President Johnson and one of the architects of the war against Viet Nam. During our talks, I made the following remark:
"'In my opinion, your memoir ("Looking Back at the Past..."), correctly states that the United States fought against Viet Nam without understanding her history, geography, culture, customs, traditions, the Vietnamese man, the Vietnamese nation, and in particular the Vietnamese leaders. We have a long-enduring culture, and an original military theory which has been tested many times throughout history. It is because of this that we won.'
"'Yes,' McNamara replied. 'This is true.'
"In the end, he had realised a truth, but regrettably it had come much too late!"
General Giap's directive
At last, on 24 May 2007, we too had the great honour and rare privilege to meet this titan of a human being, General Vo Nguyen Giap, now 97 years old. He spoke to us in words that were very different from those he uttered when he met the distinguished US statesperson, Robert McNamara.
To us he said: "My wife and I are very moved by your visit today from the very far country of South Africa. The relationship between Vietnam and South Africa has been formed for quite a long time, and includes the support and assistance by the people of South Africa as well as the leaders of your country during our struggle for freedom and independence.
"We are very glad to see that South Africa is everyday enjoying progress in development particularly in terms of national unity and solidarity. And we are also glad to see that South Africa is playing a vital role in establishing a united Africa in the African Union.
"Your visit is indeed an important landmark in the relations between our two countries. I hope that the relationship between Vietnam and South Africa in the time to come will be further developed in all areas, including the political, cultural, defence and other fields. I also hope that the youth of our two countries will have many more exchanges. On this occasion please convey my best wishes to the Honourable Nelson Mandela.
"I hope that your visit to Vietnam will mark an important step forward in our bilateral ties. We fully support your initiatives for peace and unity in Africa and the world. I congratulate your success on election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. I also hope that in the context of this important organisation, our relations will be developed.
"We will always keep in mind the support for Vietnam of the Government and people of South Africa for peace and independence. We also hope that you will support our candidature for our membership of the UNSC. At this short meeting, I cannot fail to touch on President Ho Chi Minh's thoughts.
"President Ho Chi Minh laid emphasis on solidarity and unity among the people and the nations of the world. And I would repeat the saying of Uncle Ho - solidarity, solidarity, great solidarity; success, success, great success! Once again I welcome the Honourable President's visit to Vietnam, as well as your Ministers.
"And given our great potential and capacity for cooperation, the two peoples should do much more to strengthen our cooperation for development and progress. I would like you to convey my best regard to the people of SA and former President Mandela. I wish you success during your visit to our country."
The economic recovery
As we parted with General Giap and his wife, we reflected on the pride and satisfaction that the old combatant for liberation must feel with the socio-economic progress that Vietnam has made since the guns fell silent.
Reflecting on this matter in their book, "Economic Reform in Viet Nam and China: A Comparative Study", Professors Le Huu Tang and Liu Han Yue said that in 1976:
"Viet Nam remained a backward agricultural economy, (in which) 80% of the population (participated), with 70% of the labourers living mainly on agricultural production in rural areas...The incompetence of the economy was shown primarily in the low gross product per capita...The economy did not produce enough food for the subsistence of the population...The underdevelopment and incompetence of the economy inevitably led to a small and weak foreign trade, and constant trade deficits...
"The incompetence of the economy was displayed right on the surface of the society. That was the serious shortage of all consumer goods: from food, foodstuff for everyday necessities, transport means, health-care facilities, schooling equipment, etc. The rampant inflation cut down on the real salaries and went far beyond the nominal ones...Moreover, the devastation of the wars has made the recovery of living conditions and economic activities difficult and time consuming."
General Giap had educated Robert McNamara about the Vietnamese "history, geography, culture, customs, traditions, the Vietnamese man, the Vietnamese nation, and in particular the Vietnamese leaders". These had given Vietnam the strength, the resolve and the skill to emerge victorious in the wars against France and the US, and other confrontations through the centuries.
The extraordinary socio-economic advance that Vietnam has made since 1976 again speak to the same factors which General Giap mentioned in his conversation with Robert McNamara.
In an article on 25 October 2006 by Keith Badsher, The New York Times said: "(Vietnam) has Asia's second-fastest-growing economy, with 8.4 percent growth last year, trailing only China's, and the pace of exports to the United States is rising faster than even China's...Through the end of last year; Vietnam's growth rate exceeded that of Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and even India, its closest rival.
"The latest Asian economic tiger, Vietnam now produces and uses more cement than France, its former colonial ruler. The main index for the Ho Chi Minh City stock market and a smaller exchange in Hanoi have nearly doubled in value this year. Vietnam has become the talk of investment bankers and investors across Asia...
"In Vietnam, nearly double-digit growth is starting to produce the same shortages of skilled labour as in India and China...Roads and ports in this country are increasingly choked with cars and ships, the congestion worse than China's but not yet as bad as India's...
"Vietnam has reduced the percentage of its people living in abject poverty -less than $1 a day - to 8 percent from 51 percent in 1990, a greater advance than either China or India."
In its 3 August 2006 edition, The Economist said: "Life expectancy has jumped and infant mortality plunged since the 1990s. Vietnam does better on both these counts than Thailand, a far richer country. Almost three-quarters of Vietnamese children of secondary-school age are in class, up from about a third in 1990. Again, Vietnam has overtaken China, India and Indonesia."
Another report said: "Investment continued to remain strong rising from 38.4 percent of GDP in 2004 to 38.9 percent in 2005...As in recent years, private sector investment showed rapid expansion. An additional 40,000 new businesses were registered in 2005, representing an increase of 9 percent in number and 45 percent in registered capital. Revised estimates show a steep rise in FDI commitments from 4.2 billion dollars in 2004 to 6.3 billion dollars in 2005. Disbursements, including domestic borrowing by joint ventures, reached 3.3 billion dollars implying an increase of 15 percent over the past year."
Currently, Vietnam has 260,000 private enterprises. Measures have been discussed to increase this number to 500,000 by 2010. In this context, the Vietnamese report that "the development of private enterprises, particularly in processing, retail and services industries, helps generate more than 90 percent of jobs for local workers each year".
In addition, the Ministry of Planning and Investment has reported that "almost US$4.37 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) was pumped into the Vietnamese economy in the first five months of this year...Over US$3.7 billion was funnelled into an additional 372 new projects, while the remaining US$577 million was used as additional investments in previously licensed or operating businesses. FDI investment capital recorded a 25 percent increase over the same period last year and the number of newly licensed initiatives surged by 32 percent."
Solidarity, Solidarity, Great Solidarity!
In 1960 Joe Matthews met Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese leaders in Moscow in an encounter that strengthened the bonds of solidarity between our two fighting peoples.
Many years later, in 1978, Oliver Tambo led an ANC delegation to Vietnam to see what lessons we could learn from the victorious Vietnamese struggle to enable us to intensify our own struggle for liberation. We would do well to visit Vietnam again, to see what lessons we can learn that would enable us further to accelerate our advance towards achieving the goal of creating a better life for all our people.
In the meantime we will have to respond seriously to the directive given by General Giap that "given our great potential and capacity for cooperation, the two peoples (of South Africa and Vietnam) should do much more to strengthen our cooperation for development and progress."
In this regard, we should continue to draw inspiration from the immortal words of Uncle Ho - solidarity, solidarity, great solidarity: success, success, great success.