Guest Column

Reigniting OR’s values

2017-05-07 06:25
IN THE SHADOW OF GREATNESS President Jacob Zuma sitting in front of a portrait of the ANC’s former president, Oliver ‘OR’ Tambo, who would have turned 100 this year. Picture: Louise Gubb / Corbis via Getty Images

IN THE SHADOW OF GREATNESS President Jacob Zuma sitting in front of a portrait of the ANC’s former president, Oliver ‘OR’ Tambo, who would have turned 100 this year. Picture: Louise Gubb / Corbis via Getty Images

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Had he continued to live beyond the 75 years he had attained when he died on April 24 1993, Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo would have turned 100 years old on October 27 2017.

In a nutshell, the biography of the man who was fondly referred to as “OR” contains the following:

Tambo was born in Nkantolo, Mbizana, Eastern Cape, on October 27 1917.

An exceptionally gifted person, he sailed through his studies and earned himself scholarships that financed his education at the Anglican Holy Cross mission in Flagstaff, Eastern Cape; St Peters Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg; and at the University of Fort Hare, where he graduated with a BSc, majoring in maths and physics.

He went on to complete a law degree at Unisa.

The website states that “the idea of a national grouping of young men was conceived by Tambo and this crystallised into the beginnings of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL)”.

Its immediate order of business was to radicalise a dormant ANC, then led by AB Xuma.

As the ANCYL’s national secretary, Tambo penned the militant Programme of Action that the ANC adopted after electing James S Moroka as its president in 1948. 

Tambo and Ntsu Mokehle, who later became prime minister of Lesotho, were tasked with convincing Moroka to stand for election as president against Xuma.

Tambo was a member of the National Action Committee that drew up the Freedom Charter and he wrote extensive sections of the document.

A banning order prevented him from attending the Congress of the People that adopted the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in 1955.

Tambo was among 156 people charged with treason in 1956. All were eventually acquitted.

In 1959, Tambo chaired the ANC Constitutional Committee, called the Tambo Commission, which recommended greater constitutional recognition for the ANC Women’s League and the ANCYL.

It also endorsed nonracialism and the Freedom Charter.

Tambo and former president Nelson Mandela established a legal practice in 1951, setting up office in Chancellor House, Johannesburg.

Essentially, the practice defended politically victimised people and did not make much money.

Tambo was elected ANC secretary-general in 1953, deputy president in 1957, acting president in 1960 and president in 1969.

In anticipation of the banning of the ANC, the leadership prepared for the establishment of an external mission. Tambo left the country in 1960, shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, to carry out this task.

Tambo married Adelaide Frances Tshukudu in 1956 and they had three children: Thembi, Dali and Tselane. He led the ANC in exile for 30 years.

Tambo’s greatest attribute has to be that he was simply a decent human being.

He was guided by an impeccable set of values: integrity, honesty, trustworthiness, empathy, service and diligence, to mention but a few.

This suite of values, which was augmented by an exceptional intellect, Tambo placed at the service of a cause for which he lived and ultimately died.

It is these qualities that made Tambo the exceptional leader he was: respected and loved to the point of adulation by his followers; admired by the rest of the people with whom he interacted across the globe.

Tambo led people who made great sacrifices in their own right. Equally true is the fact that these people constantly strove to do their best, in appreciation of a highly respected leader. Tambo’s demeanour, devoid of threat or intimidation, gave him unrivaled authority.

Tambo encouraged constructive criticism.

Take, for example, old-man Gumede’s jibe when, in 1969, Joe Slovo briefed cadres about difficulties that were being experienced in sending trained cadres back into South Africa.

The illiterate but razor-sharp Gumede, whose first name escapes me, mockingly compared ANC leaders to cowardly warriors of old who feared going to battle.

They would plead that their spears were not sufficiently sharp and so spent endless hours sharpening them on the grindstone – until there was nothing left to fight with!

Tambo loved this story and was particularly fascinated by the analogy.

Tambo took the case of his oppressed countrymen to presidents and other heads of state, royalty, political and religious leaders, diplomats, and to many ordinary but highly sympathetic people.

He enjoyed unqualified support from leaders of other liberation movements in southern Africa and from leaders of the Frontline States such as Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and later Zimbabwe, after it achieved its independence in 1980.

At one time or another, all these countries, bar far-off Tanzania, were attacked by the apartheid government’s military forces, in the process killing mostly civilians.

Despite the enormous difficulties of fighting a regime that was Africa’s military and economic powerhouse, Tambo discharged his mandate admirably.

In addition to mobilising international grassroots support, he got governments individually and collectively at multilateral forums to work towards the complete isolation of the racist regime.

Tambo’s other mandate was to organise military training for Umkhonto weSizwe combatants and ensure they received requisite backing to wage the armed struggle.

The success of the Anti-Apartheid Movement that sprouted and mushroomed across many countries, as well as the activism of churches and nongovernmental organisations owe much to the tireless efforts of Tambo.

He called for the severance of diplomatic, cultural, academic and sporting relations with South Africa.

Offices that became unofficial South African “embassies” were established in 27 countries in Africa, Europe, North America, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.

No effort was spared by the man who abandoned his family to campaign for the freedom of his country.

The ANC enjoyed strong support from Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, with Sweden offering the organisation more non-military support than any other country.

It must be said, without diminishing generous contributions made by others, that Tanzania and Zambia under presidents Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, respectively, made arguably the greatest sacrifices in support of the liberation struggle in South Africa.

Responding to despondency over slow progress in the prosecution of the armed struggle, Tambo called a consultative conference in Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969.

It lifted morale and provided a fresh impetus for accelerating the struggle.

When conditions were ripe for a political settlement in the country, Tambo led the drafting of proposals that culminated in the Harare Declaration, which was accepted by the Organisation of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Frontline States and the General Assembly of the UN.

This paved the way for negotiations that took place in Kempton Park and eventually led to Freedom Day in 1994.

At the conclusion of the Harare Declaration, Tambo suffered a devastating stroke.

In 1991, Tambo proudly handed over to Mandela an ANC that was “stronger and intact”.

Tragically, his centenary coincides with a time when his ANC and the country it governs are throttled by insane greed; when citizens live in constant anticipation of scandal; when citizens increasingly turn to the courts for protection against reckless governance; when sleaze and mediocrity enjoy a free rein.

It is an unsustainable situation, one that sullies the honour of OR Tambo and the tens of thousands who died so that we could be free.


Do you think today’s ANC leaders display the same values that OR Tambo did during his lifetime?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword TAMBO. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    unisa  |  anc  |  ancyl  |  university of fort hare  |  oliver tambo

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