Editorial: The OR Tambo we crave

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

When he unveiled the statue of Oliver Reginald Tambo and presided over the renaming of the Air Traffic and Navigation Services auditorium after the great leader, President Jacob Zuma waxed lyrical.

Zuma talked about the late ANC president’s leadership ability, integrity and courage. He attributed his ability to steer South Africa to liberation to these qualities.

“He was able to do this because of his character, that of being a disciplined and highly principled leader.

"It is clear to me and all of us who had the rare privilege to be led by this giant, that he had a calling to serve the people of South Africa.

"He knew that South Africa and its people did not owe him anything; hence he served his people with love and selflessness,” Zuma said at OR Tambo International Airport.

It was almost a carbon copy of the speeches he gave at the memorial service and funeral of Nelson Mandela in 2013.

At the memorial service in Johannesburg on December 10, Zuma praised Mandela by saying that “courageous leaders are able to abandon their narrow concerns for bigger and all-embracing dreams, even if those dreams come at a huge price”.

At the funeral in Qunu a week later, Zuma said the world would remember Mandela as “a man of integrity who embodied the values and principles” of the ANC.

He listed them as unity, selflessness, sacrifice, collective leadership, humility, honesty, discipline, hard work and mutual respect.

He promised that those Madiba had left behind would “promote these values and practise them, in order to build the type of society you wanted”.

It is a tragedy that these two icons of South Africa’s liberation struggle, who laid the foundation for a democratic society, had the misfortune of being honoured by the absolute antithesis of what they stood for.

In honouring Mandela in 2013 and Tambo this week, Zuma was merely reading speeches and paying lip service to their magnificent legacies.

Everything he is and stands for is an insult to these South Africans, who led the organisation he is now destroying.

Tambo was arguably the greatest South African who ever lived.

For more than 30 years he held together a movement whose members and supporters lived on six continents.

He led people who lived in flashy Western metropoles, crumbling Third World cities, rigid East Bloc countries, malaria-infested exile camps, poor South African townships and wealthy suburbs.

In his purview were socialists, capitalists, pacifists, military hawks and intellectuals of diverse persuasions.

The apartheid state did everything to destroy the ANC that Tambo led and liquidate the South African struggle.

Agents infiltrated the ranks of the movement, ANC premises in host countries were bombed, leaders were assassinated and counter-intelligence operations run to divide the organisation.

Normal tensions arose: ethnic, ideological and personal.

History is littered with examples of exiled leaders of revolutionary movements who either gave up hope or succumbed to temptations.

Many became part of a royalty that elevated itself above the people.

Tambo was not that kind of leader. As Zuma said, he was courageous and selfless. He was wise. He was scholarly. He was strategic. He was humble. He was visionary.

Pity he did not live to see the free South Africa he sacrificed his life for, having died about a year before April 27 1994.

The values that Tambo personified are so sorely needed in the South Africa Zuma presides over.

The ANC and government have dedicated 2017 to his memory, but they have urinated on his legacy. Corruption has been professionalised and factions firmly entrenched.

What would sadden Tambo more is that none of the fights in the party are ideological differences about what system of governance to follow.

There are feeble attempts to dress them as such, but mainly the disputes are about who gets to dip their fingers into state coffers.

The intractable differences are about how to protect those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The discussions these days are about how to restore integrity to government institutions such as the National Prosecuting Authority and the Public Protector as they are currently occupied by people bent on undermining their constitutional obligations.

Tambo would really be ashamed to learn that the proud liberation movement he kept together for decades could be on the verge of disintegration in seven weeks.

So no, none of the ANC’s current leadership should invoke his name while undermining everything he stood for.

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July 2020

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