OR Tambo dreamt big

2017-10-22 06:00
Liberation struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu greets you on your entry to Mazimbu military camp in the Tanzanian town of Morogoro, where the late liberation struggle heroes’ spirit was invoked and taken back to South Africa’s Freedom Park, just outside Pretoria. Picture: Aleksandra Bergstein

Liberation struggle hero Solomon Mahlangu greets you on your entry to Mazimbu military camp in the Tanzanian town of Morogoro, where the late liberation struggle heroes’ spirit was invoked and taken back to South Africa’s Freedom Park, just outside Pretoria. Picture: Aleksandra Bergstein

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The challenges in front of him were no deterrent. He was a visionary who dared - and was victorious.

Last week I went back in time to one of the great success stories of the ANC in exile.

Through the efforts of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) Trust – supported by the National Heritage Council – I, together with 36 other South Africans, visited Somafco. This was the school the ANC started in Mazimbu in Morogoro, Tanzania.

Though the school was established in 1977, it was only named Somafco in 1979 in honour of Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, who was hanged by the apartheid government on April 6 1979.

Somafco stands as a proud monument to the achievement of South Africans in education, health, agriculture and industry. It is a lesson we have seemingly paid little attention to in our current dispensation, however.

From the outset, Somafco was imagined and conceptualised as an incubation period for a new South African disposition. The school and settlement were built to mould the kind of South African who would take their place in a free, democratic, nonracial, nonsexist, and non-discriminatory South Africa. The ambition the ANC harboured for a future South Africa fuelled this marvellous and lofty ideal.

Re-entering this space 27 years later, I was overwhelmed by the achievement. While the entire complex was still standing and I could recognise every part of it – including my room in the dormitories – the apparent non-existent maintenance had taken its toll on the settlement’s facilities.

When OR Tambo, as ANC President, handed back the settlement to the people and government of Tanzania in 1992, it was still a marvel enterprise and establishment.

Somafco has some of the most developed infrastructure in the area. The Tanzanian government handed over the complex to the Sokoine University of Agriculture, which has turned the campus into a College of Science and Technology.

My disappointment in the physical condition of the facilities did not dampen my appreciation of what we achieved under enormous constraints in exile.

Visionary leaders like OR Tambo imagined a South Africa where all South Africans could enjoy their humanity free and unencumbered by the legacy of apartheid. Formidable thought was brought to bear on developing a settlement to attend to the exodus of young, school-aged South Africans from the country following the June 1976 uprising. The unrest started in Soweto and spread like wildfire throughout the country up until the early 1990s.

The future of a free and democratic South Africa

The Tanzanian government, under the leadership of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, had provided the ANC with land on which to build its settlement on a state-owned former sisal farm. It was a meaningful expression of support and solidarity between the peoples of Tanzania and South Africa and came with no expectations or conditions.

Somafco gave the ANC the wherewithal to rally the world in support of its educational mission to build a South African society for the future it imagined. The future of a free and democratic South Africa.

The world remarkably responded to this call for holding hands, thereby cementing the internationalisation of the struggle as well as the support to realise the ambitions the ANC had set itself at the 1969 Morogoro conference.

Through a burgeoning network of international solidarity partners, OR Tambo’s dream came into being. At Somafco, volunteers from Africa, Europe (east and west), the Scandinavian countries, the United States and nations in the Caribbean, all worked tirelessly side by side to make real the ambition set forth.

South Africans in exile were also direct and serious partners in the project, from when the land was still undeveloped and the idea of Somafco was still only an intangible notion, through to its final development.

By its 10th anniversary in 1989, Somafco was a complete settlement with a hospital, factories, a farm, maternity settlement, a crèche, primary and secondary schools, and an adult education programme. Various “suburbs” housing the volunteers, teachers and members of the community surrounded the assorted areas of activity. The settlement was well on its way to becoming the self-sustaining community it was intended to be.

Furthermore, in 1984 the Tanzanian government provided the ANC with a larger piece of land (1 000 hectares) in Dakawa, some 53km east of Morogoro. The success of the Somafco settlement emboldened the ANC’s ambitions to build a city with its own municipality and elected government.

When I arrived in Dakawa, it was very much like I imagined it was for those entering the ANC settlement in Mazimbu in 1977. The place was still untamed bush with only one house which housed the then director of the settlement. We were accommodated in military-type tents, donated by our international supporters. We cooked for our community on open fires.

And like my comrades of earlier years, we contended with a new enemy: malaria. But by this time, however, the ANC-Holland Solidarity Hospital, established in 1984, was firing on all cylinders and we were able to receive the medical assistance and treatment needed to curb the number of casualties suffered as a result of malaria. Today, the well-curated gravesites at both Somafco and Dakawa – declared national heritage sites – tell the story of how the development of these two settlements managed to overcome the challenges our new environment posed.


By 1992, when the Tanzanian government took over the settlements, the farm in Mazimbu had developed to such an extent it was even able to sell surplus produce on the open market.

The Vuyisile Mini carpentry factory in Somafco, which provided all the furniture and wood building material for the settlements, was generating income by producing goods for the open market. The hospital established to provide healthcare services to the ANC communities was also servicing Tanzanian citizens.

These were incredible achievements by any measure. Graduates from Somafco, like myself, could continue education at universities all over the world. I attended Rutgers University in New Jersey in the US, while others went to the UK, Scandinavian countries and the Eastern Bloc.

Dakawa was properly developed after I left for Somafco and later the US. On my visit there last week and 30 years later (I first started in Dakawa before going to Somafco), the settlement was so developed I could hardly recognise the place at all. It had a vocational school, a primary and high school and a medical centre, all of which threw me for a loop. Our old kitchen shack and the foundation of the memorial a friend and I built at the Ruth First Orientation Centre were the only reminders of my time in Dakawa.

This legacy is dumbfounding when we consider how the challenges we face today in our country seem insurmountable. That we now rank lowest in every global measure in education is mind-boggling, considering we built a top class educational institution under such difficult conditions.

While it is clear that the scale of the challenges we are comparing are different, the lessons demand consideration.

OR Tambo and his comrades dreamt big.

The imminent challenges in front of them were no deterrent to their ambitions. They were bold visionaries who dared and were victorious.

The settlements of Somafco and Dakawa are a real testimony to the imagination and will of a people driven by a large and ambitious vision.

It takes great visionary leaders, standing on the shoulders of their people, to deliver on the wishes of a nation in the making. As our past attests, our country demands this of us.

Smith is a graduate of Somafco currently working at the University of Pretoria


Would SA achieve better education results if the government remodelled the education system according to the legacy and achievements of Somafco and Dakawa?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword DAKAWA and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

Read more on:    oliver tambo  |  anc

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