Dr Oliver Reginald Tambo was, and remains, a remarkable person. It is amazing how many people speak about him just like they would refer to the kindly uncle next door, or my favourite teacher at school. Countless numbers of people, young and old speak of him with amazing familiarity, if not with a tinge of awe, a kind of saintly figure who is yet normal and common. Among those who knew him I can think of nobody who has an unkind word to say about Oliver Tambo, even among those he was on opposing sides of the political debates in our country. Some of those he had to preside over their disciplinary matters as President of the African National Congress have very fond memories of him and his leadership, his listening ear, and calm demeanour, a razor-sharp mind and above all a decent gentleman.
It is now 24 years since Oliver Reginald Tambo died, and to this day he is remembered fondly, if not reverently, as the creator of our constitutional democracy. Many of those who speak about him with admiration are young people barely born at the time he returned to South Africa in 1990, incapacitated by a stroke, and as such played a limited role in the events leading up to the new South Africa born in 1994. And yet he was a revered figure of the liberation struggle, and a visionary who laid the foundations for the new South Africa. Given that, it is a little surprising that his memory is deeply etched in the minds of South Africans. At a human level, Tambo was a loving husband and a doting father to his three children. As a school teacher he was an all-rounder, a gifted choirmaster, and with an ear for matters cultural like music and dance. No wonder then that among his many initiatives, he gave support for the establishment of the Amandla Choral Ensemble, made up of ANC members. It gave them much joy, and stretched their creativity.
At a personal level, I am proud to have shared much of my life walking in the footsteps of such a giant of our time. Oliver Reginald Tambo not only taught my late brother, Fikile, at St Peter’s School, Rosettenville, near Johannesburg. My earliest memory, perhaps is that we both went to school in our early years at Holy Cross Mission, at Flagstaff. It was there that I had his sister Gertrude as a classmate. As a native of the then Transkei, to us he was a legendary intellectual, trendsetter and guide to many younger people of my generation. As young women students studying to become a Social Worker in Johannesburg, we found ourselves looking up to our big brothers, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela as we were navigating life in the big city, far away from home. In time we became very close family friends. So my knowledge and proximity to the late Oliver Reginald Tambo was not due to his role in the political leadership of our country, nor was it as sometimes is the case because he was my teacher at school. I claim him as a big brother. Very soon their practice, Mandela and Tambo Attorrneys, in Johannesburg became a favourite stopping point in the centre of the bustling city.
The 1960s saw the heightened repression in our country. Oliver Tambo was among the treason trialists of the freedom movement. He left on a mission by the ANC to establish a site of struggle overseas, build diplomatic support, and in time, to establish the armed struggle. The ANC could not have found a leader more capable of accomplishing that mission. He was by then a recognized leaders of the ANC, he had proven his loyalty and strategic expertise would be put to great use. His judicious insight as a lawyer, his razor sharp analytical tools as a mathematician, his temperament and cool head was a demeanour necessary both in dealing with the uncertainties and unknowns of a hostile world, and a head and heart rooted in family and cultural values, as well as a religious persuasion that gave him a spirituality that of the love of God and of God’s people. Oliver Reginald Tambo was oddly rooted to the earth, and ambi-dexterous not so much that he could use both hands, but that both sides of his brain allowed him a balanced life and ease of judgment. It is fair to say that through nearly 30 years living away from the South Africa he loved so dearly, and separated from his own family, and from his relatives and siblings back in Nkantolo, eMamPondweni.
In spite of what I said about the Tambos being more like family to us from rural Pondoland, he was naturally reserved and there was no chance of becoming over-familiar with him. He was inclined, even those days, to ask questions in a slow and deliberate manner, at times shifting his glasses, his eyes never shifting, but with an intense look about him. I believe that had to do with his desire to accord you much respect, to relax the listener. In that way he both gave confidence, but that he also appeared to be studying his subject.
A few years after he had left South Africa, I was employed at the World Council of Churches based in Geneva. I may have been only the second South African to be employed on the staff of the WCC after the late Professor ZK Matthews. He was as much a revered figure of the liberation movement as Tambo was to become. I had responsibility for the Women’s Programme. Being a world-wide movement I soon found that part of my battles were to be with the conservatives in the churches. Through the WCC, though, I came to appreciate the power of the solidarity movement and the passion for justice that the ecumenical movement espoused. My interactions with Oliver Tambo during this time became very significant.
Some years later, the ANC did a master-stroke and signed the Geneva Conventions. That allowed armed ANC freedom fighters under arrest to claim prisoner-of-war status. Of course, the South African courts paid no heed to international law. Nevertheless, the International Committee of the Red Cross regularly visited political prisoners in South African jails. Oliver Tambo delegated me to stay in touch with the delegates from ICRC who visited prisoners in South African jails including Robben Island. He enjoined me especially to make enquiries about the state of health and well-being of the prisoners on Robben Island, and to receive any messages from them. This was a very secret and risky mission. To be able to communicate between us we adopted as a code of communication the Cross – that brought memories of our time both of us at Holy Cross Mission. For years I could carry out this mission. He received news about his comrades diligently and with much thankfulness. That is the measure of Tambo’s pastoral concern for his comrades.
There was some skepticism about the liberation struggle in church circles in Europe and America. Much of the skepticism and at times hostility was about the armed struggle that the Southern African liberation movement pursued. Some significant church leaders found reason to voice their opposition to violence. At the same time, they sought to convince many of us that they were opposed to apartheid with as much passion as they opposed violence. With Oliver Tambo as President of the ANC these assertions were soon to be tested.
For a start, the then General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr Carsson Eugene Blake, an American churchman who had been active in the civil rights struggle back home. Blake desired to meet Oliver Tambo in a confidential one-on-one session. He was aware that any meeting with Tambo would attract adverse attention. Blake requested me to set up the meeting. I was pleased to do so, and Mr Tambo was available and willing to have such a meeting. The meeting that was scheduled for one hour went on for about 3 hours. Blake became a convert of the ANC under the leadership of Tambo. He told me after the meeting that he found Tambo to be more of a Christian than he could claim to be. With new-found passion, Blake was on a mission to change the perception of the churches and the WCC about the struggle for liberation. To a large degree the partnership and influence of both Blake and Tambo changed the attitude of the WCC to become a trusted part of the solidarity movement.
And so it was, that Mr Tambo was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Churches’ Consultation on Racism held in London in 1969. That consultation was in turn inspired by the powerful address by James Baldwin at the Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Uppsala in 1969. With a rising tide of racism and immigration from the Carribbean and Asian countries across Europe racism was on the rise. He called on the churches to throw their moral weight and resources in solidarity with those who were in the struggle for liberation. In an article on memoirs on Oliver Tambo, Pauline Webb remembers that Tambo ended his speech with words from a favourite hymn he learnt as a child, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” (Jordan:2007,24). The gathering of church people gathered in London, declared their commitment to Tambo by a rousing and enthusiastic applause. It can therefore be said without hesitation that was among the founders of the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism.
Very little is often said about Oliver Reginald Tambo, lifelong, abiding and militant Christianity. The autobiography by Lulli Calinicos, for example, mentions the church in a rather disparaging manner in one line. And yet, not only was Tambo nurtured in church schools, he also formed abiding friendships with respected church people who became personal friends like former Bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, Bishop Trevor Huddleston, Canon John Collins. He made a deep impression on church people and leaders who sought to express their Christian faith in the struggle for justice. Besides Eugene Carsson Blake, he also got to know many South Africans in the church including Desmond Tutu and CF Beyers Naudé. With Trevor Huddleston, he co-convened an international conference on Children under Apartheid in 1985 in Harare. At that conference there were testimonies from children who had been detained families that had been affected by the shootings and killing of children. In such an initiative Tambo showed himself to be more of a parent than the apartheid system. Following the Soweto Uprisings in 1976, the ANC gave refuge to many young people who had fled the apartheid system. Many went to school and university, others chose to join the armed struggle – many became leaders in their own right, and with their experience they found the ANC receptive to new ideas.
In 1987 the World Council of Churches held a consultative meeting of the churches in Lusaka, Zambia. Among the participants were church leaders from South Africa, led by Beyers Naudé, then General secretary of the South African Council of Churches. Oliver Tambo led the delegation of the ANC, equally at senior level. Significantly on that occasion, was the meeting of Dr Naudé with Oliver Reginald Tambo for the first time. There was an almost electrifying meeting of these two stalwarts in mutual recognition of their common quest for freedom. It was also the first time that an ANC delegation met with church leaders from South Africa. That consultation also made some groundbreaking theological and moral statements about the church and struggle. It was significantly the time when for many churches ANC became unbanned in the canon of the church. The churches had declared that armed struggle was theologically and morally legitimate defence against apartheid.
For me, the greatest contribution that Oliver Tambo ever made to the liberation of South Africa was in the liberation of women. Tambo was never threatened by powerful women. After all his own wife Adelaide was a powerful woman, who was an independent thinker, who brought up their children and built a home in London out of love for her husband, did the best for their children, and harboured an abiding commitment to the values of the struggle that her husband so wholeheartedly embraced. I have always, however, valued in my heart the support he gave for an idea that evoked mixed feelings with the ANC and the women’s movement in the ANC. That was an initiative I took to raise funds to build a movement of South African women abroad, regardless of their political affiliations and colour. Tambo had a far-sighted view of the world and of South Africa. For him it was an initiative that could both serve all South African women, strengthen the solidarity movement, and provide avenues to promote better understanding among women. He had no hesitation in endorsing this idea. I was eternally grateful for his generosity in that manner.
His approach, however, on women was one which was inbred, coming as he did from a polygamous family, he drew very close to his mother. Within the ANC he championed the responsibility to advance women in all aspects of the struggle. Women in the ANC were deployed in the army, and could even serve as commanders. It caused some consternation, I understand, when he nominated some women to become Chief Representatives of the ANC in some major European countries. Tambo trusted the instincts and the judgment of women, even in the leadership of the ANC. Today, when we experience so much violence against women and children in South Africa, and when so many women in the leadership structures of the Women’s League behave with such careless abandon in their utterances and actions on matters pertaining to the rights and protection of women, one knows that the legacy of Tambo has been lost.
Tambo’s approach to leadership was developmental. This meant that those within the ANC had opportunities to progress in their studies and in their various skills they might have had. A leader whose personal life was marked by simplicity and sincerity in dealing with cadres of the movement at all levels. He never spared his own life and mingled freely among cadres new and old. It has been said that Tambo was one leader who never surrounded himself with a phalanx of security to the extent that he was inaccessible to his members. For that he was much respected and loved. He never enriched himself at the expense of the movement and shared the meagre resources all members of the ANC received.
Oliver Reginald Tambo was very conscious of the debt South Africa owed to may African states and many of the pioneering African leaders in the Pan African Movement. Wherever he traveled he was received as a statesman. He honoured the challenges and sacrifices many African states made in order to support the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa. He was very strategic in his relations with Africa. He believed that there was much to learn from the experiences of Africa, and there was a duty to elevate solidarity with Africa above all blandishments from the West. As a master tactician, he made abiding friendships with Africa’s leaders, and through careful listening and enquiry he was able to articulate the theory and strategies of the liberation struggle. Drawing, one supposes, from his background as a teacher and lawyer, he could marshal arguments in a non-threatening manner but convincing manner, and with patience he paid meticulous attention to the minutest detail. It is said that he struck those who heard him with the measure of sincerity, integrity and truth.
Such was it that towards the dying days of apartheid he expended all his energies traveling and discussing a plan for a peaceful resolution of the South African Question. He presided over various sessions within the structures of the ANC. He was in contact with Nelson Mandela, by this time confined to Victor Verster Prison, and he toured and took into his confidence the leaders of the Front-Line States, and he did much to convince the OAU to recognize both the fact that the South African struggle had to be led by South Africans themselves, and that to be a success South Africa needed the goodwill and support on Africa, first and foremost. It is said that he travelled incessantly for much of the year in 1988 and in 1989, until the Harare Declaration was adopted by African states. In August 1989 the Harare Declaration was adopted by the Ad-hoc Committee on Southern Africa. Thus, the Harare Declaration became the blueprint for negotiations towards a democratic South Africa.
Oliver Reginald Tambo made a triumphal return to his homeland in 1991. By this time he had suffered a debilitating stroke. He was back in his homeland with his dear Adelaide with him, and their children. Typically, he was there to preside over the ANC’s first national conference on home soil since the bannings of the 1950s. For years he declined to accept the title of President of the ANC, and remained Acting President. He argued that the ANC cannot choose its leaders adequately in foreign lands. However, for the 30 years he spent in exile, he was the face of the ANC. And yet, it was under his influence that the ANC mounted a ferocious campaign to Free Nelson Mandela. That was because he believed that the world had to become aware that the leadership of the ANC was more than what became the leadership in exile. But that never diminished respect for Oliver Tambo: the moreso that he embraced the ideal of a collective leadership. In Sweden in 1991 where he was receiving treatment for a stroke, he received Nelson Mandela, and for the first time these lifelong friends and partners could chart a way forward for South Africa. To Nelson Mandela, now out of prison, he could hand over the ANC still united and ready to govern.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that I believe that the commemoration of this centennial year of the birth of Oliver Reginald Tambo has significance throughout South Africa and beyond. It is a century of struggle and achievement, the pity it is that merely a year before that moment of crowning glory, he was to pass away in April 1993. A year later, South Africans in their millions voted in the first-ever free and fair universal franchise elections in the history of the country since union in 1910, and before. 27 April 1994 was the election that put the ANC in government, and his friend Nelson Mandela, the first President and Head of State of a new democratic constitutional South Africa. Many South African universities honoured him, awards he so richly deserved. His beloved alma mater, the University of Fort Hare engaged him as Chancellor of the university. To be candid, there can be no award enough to bestow an honour to one so richly deserving. The best we can do is to become more faithful to the values he espoused, and the hopes he cherished. Today, when one observes the misfortune to which the ANC government has become, one can only weep for Oliver Reginald Tambo.
**Dr Brigalia Bam is the Chairperson of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.