In the shadow of a colossus

2013-11-03 14:00

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Does the ANC live out the lofty ideals of Oliver Tambo 20 years after his passing

‘A great giant who strode the globe like a colossus ... A mind whose thoughts have opened the doors to our liberty ... A heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised ... The gentle voice whose measured words of reason shook the thrones of tyrants ...”

Such was the description of Oliver Reginald Tambo by his lifelong comrade and friend Nelson Mandela at Tambo’s funeral in 1993.

These words describe the illustrious character and person who led the ANC, and in some measure South Africa, through its tumultuous and demanding period of struggle for liberation.

Twenty years since his passing, we recall and eulogise comrade Tambo’s life and times.

Stephen Clingman said of Tambo, while reflecting on the mortality and immortality of Bram Fischer, a contemporary and comrade of both Tambo and Mandela: “For if one connotation of immortality is that of transcendence, or a certain timelessness, rather it seemed to me (Tambo) had filled his life with time, and had filled time with his life. It was only by becoming fully himself that he became more than himself. It was only in that way that he came to embody meaning, both for his time and beyond.”

In 1960, Tambo was entrusted with the task of building the ANC’s external mission so that the ANC could pursue the struggle for liberation. In the course of discharging his duties, he met with men and women across the ideological spectrum and moral persuasions.

Dr Pallo Jordan says: “He knew a spontaneous revolution was unlikely, if not impossible.

Making a revolution, he reasoned, required steady but sure work to bring together a number of factors, chief among which was organising the most militant opponents of apartheid to mobilise the people into action to challenge the National Party’s regime.”

As he patiently sought a broad front of united action against apartheid, he cultivated it in his own organisation, the ANC.

Lynda Chalker from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the 1980s attests: “Oliver Tambo really was the patient leader, often having to rein in others in his movement.”

For close on 30 years, he exercised the art of patience, mindful that the objective to change a society’s history, particularly against powerful forces inside and outside South Africa, would be a drawn-out affair.

He painstakingly and skilfully united a myriad people and views around ideals of freedom.

Oliver Tambo was raised and became the leader of a revolutionary liberation movement in the poverty and racism of 20th-century South Africa.

Consequently, due to the waning fortunes of his family, he depended on the benevolence of a foreign benefactor to complete his secondary schooling. After matriculating, he received assistance from the Transkei Bhunga to study at Fort Hare.

After passing his BSc, he taught mathematics at St Peter’s, his alma mater. He gave up teaching for law, later becoming an attorney and founding the first African legal partnership firm with Nelson Mandela. In all these endeavours, he excelled against the odds.

It is through and out of these conditions that the heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised was born and grew.

We require these characteristics as we seek to realise a national democratic society. We must work together across the board for such a society to prevail.

We must be patient and understand that to liberate a people takes longer than 20 years of democratic governance.

Yet in that very instance, we must ask whether or not we have fully honoured the continuing mission Tambo gave us. This should help us assess if we continue to bear a heart whose dreams give hope to the despised.

To this heart that dreamt and gave hope to innumerable thousands of black children for education, we can safely say we have created a single, nonracial national education system to replace the divided, discriminatory apartheid one.

In the process, we introduced one more year of schooling to prepare children before starting school and now have close to 800 000 children in Grade R. We now have more than 60% of schools charging no fees attended by more than 8 million children.

The opposition has now announced they will implement this policy of ours in 200 schools in the Western Cape.

Aware that most children from poor households attend school on empty stomachs, we introduced a school scheme that currently feeds more than 7 million children in deserving schools.

There are more children in school today – about 99% – and the matric pass rate has improved from a mere 57% when we took over government in 1994 to 75% today.

Comrade President Jacob Zuma recently noted: “This means we will meet and exceed the UN millennium development goal for universal access to primary education.

What is more impressive with the achievement of this target is that the proportion of girls attending primary, secondary and tertiary education has improved significantly.”

These improvements impact on post-school education, where 750 000 African students are at university today, compared with the mere 150 000 in 1994. Financial loans and bursaries to students, which were almost nil before, now stand at R8 billion.

We have also created a national service-linked bursary scheme for teacher-education students known as Funda Lushaka. We are also building two new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape.

These are important steps towards fully honouring the dream of education carried in the heart of the colossus that was Tambo.

We moved from an almost zero base to where we are now, where we spend the same amount of money for every black child as that spent on a white child. We are fully aware there have been pitfalls and serious errors too as we traverse these paths.

But we are without doubt that education is key to the development of the individual and a nation. Our commitment is that no child’s future and access to education should be determined by economic status. This is something comrade Tambo was fully conscious of.

The challenge before us is that of translating these quantitative improvements into qualitative ones. We, therefore, developed and endorsed the National Development Plan as an instrument to help us work towards such goals, among others.

This plan brings together all of the people of South Africa to ensure we bring about this qualitative change in the lives of the majority of South Africans – blacks in general and Africans in particular. In this regard, it resonates with the Freedom Charter.

Twenty years on, and moving forward, we continue to be inspired by the heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised.

After all, it was from Tambo that we learnt that “only full immersion in the tumult and demands of history, without care for the personal judgements of posterity, could give an essential weightless idea any substance”.

» Mantashe is secretary-general of the ANC

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