Sunday, April 27, 2008

Remember Oliver Tambo: A Dream That Gave Hope to the Despised

Remember Oliver Tambo

A dream that gave hope to the despised

Courtesy of ANC Today
Friday, 25 April, 2008

During the month of April, the ANC has remembered the contributions of some of its most outstanding leaders. This week, we remember Oliver Reginald Tambo, who led the organisation for close on three decades and who passed away 15 years ago. He was, in the words of his close comrade, colleague and friend, Nelson Mandela, "a great giant who strode the globe like a colossus".

His life and contribution serves as inspiration to us today as we grapple with the challenge of building a free and democratic society that truly belongs to all who live in it. Oliver Tambo died almost exactly a year before the dawn of freedom. Yet he did more than most to bring about that historic event. As we celebrate our freedom this weekend, we should dedicate ourselves to serve the nation as he taught us - selflessly, ceaselessly and with humility.

Speaking at Tambo's funeral, held just a fortnight after the nation had laid Chris Hani to rest, Mandela said:

"A great giant who strode the globe like a colossus has fallen. A mind whose thoughts have opened the doors to our liberty has ceased to function. A heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised has for ever lost its beat. The gentle voice whose measured words of reason shook the thrones of tyrants has been silenced.

"We say he has departed. But can we allow him to depart while we live! Can we say Oliver Tambo is no more, while we walk this solid earth! Oliver lived not because he could breathe. He lived not because blood flowed through his veins. Oliver lived not because he did all the things that all of us as ordinary men and women do.

"Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people. He lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision."

We remain engaged with this vision, driven by this idea, and fuelled by this hope.

A life of service

Born five years after ANC, Oliver Tambo spent most of his life serving in the struggle against apartheid. 'OR', as he was popularly known by his peers, was born on 27 October 1917 in Mbizana in eastern Mpondoland in what was then the Cape Province. His parents had converted to Christianity shortly before he was born.

At the age of seven he began his formal education at the Ludeke Methodist School in the Mbizana district and completed his primary education at the Holy Cross Mission. He then transferred to Johannesburg to attend St Peters College, in Rossettenville, where he completed his high school education.

From St Peters, Tambo went to study at the University College of Fort Hare, near Alice, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1941. It was at Fort Hare that he first became involved in the politics of the national liberation movement. He led a student class boycott in support of a demand to form a democratically elected Student's Representative Council. As a consequence he was expelled from Fort Hare and was thus unable to complete his Bachelor of Science honours degree.

In 1942, he returned to St Peters College as a science and mathematics teacher. He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944 and became its first National Secretary. He was elected President of the Transvaal ANCYL in 1948 and national vice-president in 1949.

In the youth league, Tambo teamed up with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, William Nkomo, CM Majombozi and others to bring a bold, new spirit of militancy into the post-war ANC. In 1946 Tambo was elected onto the Transvaal Executive of the ANC. In 1948 he, together with Walter Sisulu, was elected onto the National Executive Committee.

Tambo left teaching soon after the adoption by the ANC of the Programme of Action and set up a legal partnership with Nelson Mandela. The firm soon became known as a champion of the poor, victims of apartheid laws with little or no money to pay their legal costs.

During the Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws of 1952, Oliver Tambo was among the numerous volunteers who courted imprisonment by deliberately breaking apartheid laws. The apartheid government's attempts to suppress the Defiance Campaign resulted in one of the first mass trials in South African legal history. Though he himself was not among the accused, Tambo was close to the trial. It resulted in the designation of Sisulu and others found guilty of organising the Defiance Campaign as statutory "Communists". One result was that in 1955 ANC Secretary General Walter Sisulu was banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered to resign his post as Secretary General.

Oliver Tambo was appointed to fill the post, pending ratification by the annual conference. Hounded by banning orders and other restrictions, many of Tambo's peers were unable to attend the Congress of the People in June 1955. Tambo was not only on the platform but also served on the National Action Council that headed the mobilisation for the COP. It was because of this role that Tambo found himself among the 156 accused in the marathon Treason Trial in 1956.

In 1958, Oliver Tambo left the post of Secretary General to become the Deputy President of the ANC. The following year, 1959, he, like many of his colleagues, was served with five year banning order. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Tambo was designated by the ANC to travel abroad to set up the ANC's international mission and mobilise international opinion in opposition to the apartheid system.

The international struggle

Working in conjunction with Dr Yusuf Dadoo he was instrumental in the establishment of the South African United Front, which brought together the external missions of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the SA Indian Congress and the South West African National Union (SWANU). As a result of a very successful lobbying campaign the South African United Front was able to secure the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961. After this initial success the SAUF broke up in July 1961.

Assisted by African governments, Tambo was able to establish ANC missions in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and in London. From these small beginnings, under his stewardship the ANC acquired missions in 27 countries by 1990. These include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, with the exception of China, two missions in Asia and one in Australasia.

The suppression of the 1961 stay-at-home strike led to the ANC adopting the armed struggle as part of its strategy. Tambo was again an important factor in securing the cooperation of numerous African governments in providing training and camp facilities for the ANC. In 1965 Tanzania and Zambia gave the ANC camp facilities to house trained Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) combatants. In 1967, after the death of ANC President General Chief Albert Luthuli, Tambo became Acting president until his appointment to the Presidency was approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.

During the 1970s Oliver Tambo's international prestige rose immensely as he traversed the world, addressing the United Nations and other international gatherings on the issue of apartheid. He became the key figure in the ANC's Revolutionary Council (RC) which had been set up at the Morogoro Conference to oversee the reconstruction of the ANC's internal machinery and to improve its underground capacity.

In 1985 Tambo was re-elected ANC President at the Kabwe Conference. In that capacity he served also as the Head of the Politico-Military Council (PMC) of the ANC, and as Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Among black South African leaders, Oliver Tambo was probably the most highly respected on the African continent, in Europe, Asia and the Americas. During his stewardship of the ANC he raised its international prestige and status to that of an alternative to the Pretoria Government. He was received with the protocol reserved for Heads of State in many parts of the world.

During his years in the ANC, Oliver Tambo played a major role in the growth and development of the movement and its policies. He was among the generation of African nationalist leaders who emerged after the Second World War who were instrumental in the transformation of the ANC from a liberal-constitutionalist organisation into a radical national liberation movement.

In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke, and underwent extensive medical treatment. He returned to South Africa in 1991, after over three decades in exile. At the ANC's first legal national conference inside South Africa, held in Durban in July 1991, Tambo was elected ANC National Chairperson. He was also chairperson of the ANC's Emancipation Commission.

Oliver Tambo died from a stroke at 24 April 1993. His memory lives on in the daily struggles by millions of South Africans to forge a new nation, building on the foundation that he and his contemporaries laid, inspired by the vision to which he dedicated his entire life.

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