So why would the ANC risk offending and alienating important "partners" like the U.S. by inviting the Cuban delegation to the service and putting Obama in the position to have the shake the hand of the man his government has spent the last 50 years trying to obliterate? The answer is something Mandela has understood since the early 1960s and the ANC leadership clearly understands today. The Azanian (South African) masses love Cuba and the Cuban revolution because while the U.S. was labeling the ANC and the Azanian people as terrorists as recently as the mid 1980s, the Cuban revolution, despite very limited resources, has provided principled and abundant material and moral aide to the people of Southern Africa since the 1960s.
In order to properly understand this history, you have to go back to the cold war days of the mid 60s. The U.S. had just successfully sabotaged the Congolese independence process by murdering democratically elected Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (the CIA - you call them the Central Intelligence Agency, we call them Criminals in Action - has recently acknowledged it's role in Lumumba's illegal assassination). Lumumba's murder, and subsequent CIA-backed sabotage, destroyed the hopes and aspirations of the Congolese people and sent that country into a tailspin of dysfunction and instability that the country still hasn't recovered from. In fact, in 2007, the Congo had it's first national election since Lumumba's election in 1960. So, from 1961 up to current times, the Congo has been engaged in on and off war and instability. In the early stages of that turmoil, Cuba dispatched Ernesto "Che" Guevara and about 100 African Cubans to the Congo to help train and assist the National Congolese Movement soldiers in fighting off the CIA backed terrorists and mercenaries. Although unsuccessful in restoring democracy to the Congo, the Che-led Cuban forces built important relationships with rebel movements operating all throughout Africa. These relationships included the leaders and founders of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA in the person of Agostino Neto), Southwest African African People's Organization (SWAPO in Namibia in the person of Sam Njomo), the Zimbabwe African National Union (in the person of Robert Mugabe), and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau (in the person of Amilcar Cabral). These relationships, along with cemented relationships with the established revolutionary leadership in Africa in the person of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Sekou Ture in Guinea, and others, led to firm connections which transpired with continued and expanded Cuban military support for rebel forces all over the African continent.
In the 1970s, the MPLA ratcheted it's war for independence against Portugal in Angola while the ZANU did the same against the British colonists who struggled to maintain their grip on that country. By the late 70s, the ANC, the Pan-African Congress of Azania, South Africa, the Black Consciousness Movement, the Azanian People's Organization, and others continued armed resistance against settler colonialism in Azania, South Africa. The U.S. CIA could only see these genuine struggles for self-determination within the context of the cold war and the fight against "communism." Since the MPLA was advancing a socialist agenda and the ANC and other organizations in Azania were influenced by socialist ideals, this presented justification on the part of the imperialists to attempt to stop these liberation movements by whatever means they could. So, although many everyday people today credit Princess Di from Britain for her alleged work against land mines in Angola and the rest of Southern Africa, most of those well intended people don't know that the CIA is responsible for 99% of those mines that crippled and killed thousands of youth. Criminals in Action are also responsible for the thousands of bombs posing as toys that blew up in the hands of children who picked them up throughout Southern Africa. This is not to mention the poisoned water supplies, and training and supplies for CIA created and supported groups in Southern Africa such as the scores of white nationalist groups in Azania and the so-called National Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA). The situation was dire during those days for the liberation fighters in Southern Africa. The CIA, British M5, Israeli Mossad, and South African intelligence had organized thousands of white nationalist mercenaries (many from the U.S. and others from Nazi Germany) to roam around under the leadership of barbaric criminals like Mike Moare who was known for his brutality and ruthlessness. These bands of criminals wrecked havoc and terror on populations that never generated the outcry that white liberals have posed for the so-called KONY 2012 threat. No help came from the USSR, China, and certainly not from the U.S. for the people of Azania, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The only help came from the small Caribbean island known as Cuba. With extensively limited resources, the Cubans committed to provide Cuban troops to support the Azanian liberation movements as well as the rebels in Angola.
By the mid 80s, the coalition of white supremacists which included the upholders of South African apartheid, and settler colonialism in Africa, had used the mercenaries and other criminal forces to threaten to take over all of Southern Africa. Had they succeeded, the entire Southern portion of the African continent would have been thrown into apartheid and racist hegemony. Think about that for a moment. There would be no continued independence in Zimbabwe and the name of that country would probably have been turned back to the colonial name of Rhodesia - honoring the British racist Cecil Rhodes. There would be no 1994 elections in Azania, South Africa, or independence in Mozambique and Namibia, and Mandela more than likely would have died in prison.
Besides the courageous efforts of the liberation movements inside of Azania along with the MPLA, ZANU, and others, the reason why institutional racism didn't overtake all of Southern Africa was because of the 40,000 Cuban troops who fought courageously against the white supremacists. Thousands of Cuban lives were lost in Southern Africa and thousands of Africans were saved and served by scores of Cuban medical personnel. And, unlike the U.S., which requires political and economic favor for providing any aid, Cuba has never asked the people of Azania for anything for their sacrifices.
Today, the people of Azania, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, and Zambia, continue to forge forward in building their countries (and moving forward towards Pan-Africanism - the true solution to Africa's suffering). None of this could be possible without the contributions of the Cuban revolution towards Africa's self-determination. And by the way, one of Cuba's conditions for withdrawing from Southern Africa in the late 80s, was the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
So, now that this history has been presented, if you didn't already, you now know why the minute he tasted freedom, Mandela was expressing his thanks for the Cuban revolution. You also know why the ANC, despite it's strong turn towards neo-colonialism since 1994, is still required to respect and acknowledge the principled contributions of the Cubans towards its development today. Neo-colonialism may be dominant in Azania, South Africa today, but the imprint of that selfless woman and man, that socialist women and man, that Che talked about, and the Cuban people demonstrated in Southern Africa, is imprinted on the people of that region forever.