This week in history: Centennial of South African freedom fighter Oliver Tambo
Courtesy of

Oliver Reginald Tambo, leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile for thirty years, was born 100 years ago on October 27, 1917. He died at 75 in 1993, leaving an indelible mark on history. “Comrade O.R.,” as he was known, contributed substantially to the new South African constitution and to the inclusive and equitable policies of democratically elected government, thereby affirmed the abiding vision of the ANC. Today, visitors to South Africa fly into the Johannesburg international airport named for him.

Tambo was a founder member and secretary of the ANC Youth League in 1944; the general secretary of the ANC from 1952; the mandated leader of the ANC’s Mission in Exile from 1960; president of the ANC from 1977 until 1990; then national chairperson until his death. He passed away shortly before the first free national elections in South Africa that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency.

Born with the name Kaizana, Tambo grew up in Pondoland in the Eastern Cape, known for its green, fertile land; it had been the last chiefdom in South Africa to remain independent. He adopted traditional rural values of community cooperation, and a democratic style of leadership that heard and considered all opinions. In his own family there were strong tribal and Christian influences. He was also exposed to the commercial economy and to the new phenomenon of migrant labor in the coal and gold mines. He acquired the name Oliver in school, where he discovered a love of discussion and debate. English seemed to be the key to skills, independence and power.

Through the kindness of two English sisters who sent ten pounds a year for Oliver’s tuition, he enrolled at Holy Cross, a missionary school, and after five years there his teachers found him a place in the well-known black school of St. Peter’s in Johannesburg. Many years later, Comrade O.T. linked the kind deed of the English ladies to the international support “for those engaged in the struggle for liberation from oppression and the apartheid system in particular.”

At St. Peter’s in Johannesburg, Oliver met boys from other provinces, who spoke other African languages, and also to fast-talking city youngsters. For the first time, in the streets of Johannesburg, he was exposed to race prejudice and segregation, but city life was to be his future. An orphan by the age of sixteen, he was a brilliant student and went on to study at Fort Hare, taking degrees in physics and math. At Fort Hare, a boarding school for the emerging African intelligentsia, he met Nelson Mandela, who became a lifelong comrade. “From the start,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, “I saw that Oliver’s intelligence was diamond-edged; he was a keen debater and did not accept the platitudes that so many of us automatically subscribed to.”

Before his last year at Fort Hare was through, he was expelled for organizing a student protest, but his old school, St. Peter’s, immediately hired him as a math teacher. Once again, Oliver was in Johannesburg, and at the office of an estate agent named Walter Sisulu he met the young black elite—the teachers, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals who loved a good discussion on politics and life. They agreed that the ANC was the organization with a long nationalist tradition and vision that they could work with. In 1944, the ANC Congress in Batho, Bloemfontein, formally created the ANC Youth League, as well as a Women’s League. Anton Lembede was elected chairman, Oliver Tambo secretary and Walter Sisulu treasurer.

Apartheid tightens the noose

In 1948, the National Party was voted into power by the white electorate. They immediately expanded a host of racial laws. The existing pass laws were tightened up to control labor and the movement of black people. These laws needed to be challenged and resisted. O.R. decided to study law by correspondence, while continuing his teaching. When he qualified as a lawyer in 1952 he joined Nelson Mandela in an immensely successful firm dedicated to assisting black people against the oppressive apartheid legislation.

Chief Albert Luthuli was elected ANC president at a time when restrictive orders were issued for its leaders. After Walter Sisulu was banned, Oliver Tambo became national secretary. He and Chief Luthuli, highly respected for his refusal to be bought off by the apartheid regime, worked together on ANC’s mass campaigns and policies for the remainder of the decade. O.R. was deeply influenced by Luthuli’s simplicity and integrity.

In 1955, the Congress of the People presented to the nation the Freedom Charter, which reflected the grassroots demands of a democratic South Africa. The following year, Tambo, Luthuli, Mandela, Sisulu and 152 others were arrested for high treason. After preliminary hearings, O.R. and Chief Luthuli were acquitted. With the bulk of the ANC leadership still on trial, Tambo and Luthuli had to continue to lead the struggle. During this period O.R. also updated the ANC constitution, its more inclusive vision based on acceptance of the Freedom Charter. Some Africanists broke from the ANC, though, to form the Pan Africanist Congress.

In 1956, Oliver married Adelaide Tsukudu, a Youth League activist and qualified nurse. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, a storm of protest both at home and abroad erupted. Panicking, the apartheid government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress, declared a state of emergency, and jailed thousands of activists. Chief Luthuli, acting for the ANC, then instructed Tambo to leave the country to set up a Mission in Exile in order to gather international support for the liberation movement.

Once Tambo went into exile, Adelaide became the breadwinner, working double shifts to provide for their three children. She also made their home a place of refuge for ANC members arriving in the UK.

Leading from abroad

In the early period of the mission in exile, O.R. had to deal with many different countries with conflicting ideologies and policies. Except for the Scandinavian countries, the governments of most western countries were unhappy with the ANC’s willingness to work with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and also with its turn to armed struggle in 1962. In Africa, the movement’s non-racial policy was seen as a drawback by many newly independent countries, which had fought against white colonialism. It was thanks to O.R.’s palpable commitment, insight, understanding and ability to articulate the ANC vision, that negative images of the ANC were eventually dispelled.

O.R. campaigned ceaselessly for international sanctions against the apartheid regime. The campaign grew to include the boycott of South African sports, arts, academic and all cultural interaction as well as South African exports.

After the arrest of the bulk of the ANC leadership, including Mandela, following the Rivonia Trial, the ANC was severely weakened internally. The Supreme Command was passed to O.R., in exile. The ANC set up its headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, whose head of state, Julius Nyerere, generously donated land and other resources.

It was at Morogoro, Tanzania, that the ANC was able to hold its first conference outside South Africa, in 1969. The conference was sanctioned by the leadership imprisoned on Robben Island, and was O.R.’s constructive response to criticism by cadres who were itching to return home to wage the armed struggle inside.

One of the leading protesters was Chris Hani, who had been jailed for two years in Botswana following the ambitious military campaign to invade South Africa via the hostile territory of Rhodesia. Much of the leadership was furious with Hani’s outburst and wanted to discipline him severely, but O.R. was able to overlook the provocation, and really listen to the points Hani was making. The Morogoro conference agreed that in future political interest was to take precedence over the military, with a Revolutionary Council (RC) providing direction. The non-racial composition of the RC proved to be a problem with a small Africanist group within ANC, and the so-called Group of Eight broke away.

It was to O.R.’s credit that the split was contained, and did not spread further. Tambo was truly the “glue” that held the movement together during the most difficult and frustrating years in exile. He began raising funds from the international community to give these future militants shelter and education. As a successful teacher himself, O.R. was most concerned that these young exiles should first complete their schooling before joining the military struggle. He also aided in establishing the Luthuli Foundation, which allocated scholarships to serious students, placing them in friendly countries around the world.

The 1982 massacre by the South African Defense Force (SADF) in Maseru, Lesotho, an independent neighboring country, was part of a general destabilization campaign against other countries such as Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which lent support to the ANC. Particularly threatening to South Africa in those years of the Cold War was the sustenance the ANC received from socialist countries, including Cuba. The SADF invaded Angola, with the encouragement of the U.S., aimed both to drive out Cuban troops who had responded to the elected Angolan government’s call for assistance, as well as to smash anti-apartheid camps. At Cuito Cuanavale, these fighters helped to defeat the SADF. This was an enormous psychological victory for the anti-apartheid struggle.

Retaining humanity within the struggle

In these years it became clear that the liberation movement had been infiltrated by informers. Frustration and uncertainty introduced a climate of suspicion, even paranoia. Suspects were questioned, and a number found guilty under summary judgment. The maltreatment of these prisoners came to the attention of O.R., who appointed a committee of investigation to curtail the abuses. That committee also formulated a Code of Conduct for both the armed militants and the ANC, followed by a Bill of Rights, which later influenced the South African Constitution. Among O.R.’s primary concerns were rights for women in the movement and children’s rights, and he firmly declared a principled tolerance for diverse sexual orientation.

Looking ahead, O.R made a firm policy statement on the necessity for a multi-party democracy after liberation, in which there would be freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, language and religion. This was an alternative to the one-party state model adopted by many independent African countries.

As mass resistance to apartheid escalated in the 1980s, O.R. broadcast regularly on Radio Freedom, calling on opponents to make the apartheid system ungovernable. State violence rapidly increased, and in response so did the armed resistance. O.R. continued to maintain the moral high ground, emphasizing that civilian loss of life was still to be avoided. When mistakes occurred, however, he rightly pointed out that the violence of apartheid was their genesis.

The economic weapon continued as a major campaign. O.R.’s years of patient diplomacy and warm relations with anti-apartheid movements in Europe and North America began to pay off. Sanctions and divestment campaigns among students, churches, the African-American community, trade unions and other civic organizations put pressure on conservative governments to act against apartheid. Reluctantly, the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the U.S. and the UK began to seek dialogue with the ANC leadership, no longer able to ignore the powerful popular support that the ANC had won against vicious state racism.

More and more groups of people—Afrikaner intellectuals, professionals, white trade unionists, sporting representatives and delegations from a variety of organizations—began visiting ANC headquarters in Lusaka.

Once the possibility of negotiations became more likely, it fell on the ANC in exile to present the ANC’s strategy to the world. Under Tambo’s guidance, a team prepared the Harare Declaration. As always, O.R. gave his all, working late into the night finalizing the document. On August 9, 1989, O.R. collapsed with a severe stroke. He was rushed by plane from Lusaka to London.

Within a few months, the ANC was unbanned and Mandela and other leading political prisoners released. As soon as he could, Mandela journeyed to Sweden, where O.R. was recuperating, to meet his old friend after nearly thirty years’ separation. In December 1990, Tambo returned home. At the first Congress inside South Africa since the banning of the ANC, he reported on the mission which he had been mandated to undertake. He was able to deliver the ANC, united and successful. Many years had passed, entailing much pain, sacrifice and the loss of many lives, but the movement’s major principles remained intact. At the congress, Mandela was elected president of the ANC, and Oliver Tambo national chairman.

In his remaining three years back home, O.R. delighted in spending time at his sisters’ homestead in Kantolo, gazing once again at the Eastern Cape mountains of his childhood.

In the early hours of April 23, 1993, Oliver Tambo suffered a massive, fatal stroke. His death came two weeks after the murder of one of his most talented apprentices, Chris Hani. The shock of the assassination, as well as the very real threat of national mayhem narrowly averted, may well have hastened his own demise.

Oliver Tambo was accorded a state funeral. Scores of friends and heads of state from the international community journeyed to bid him farewell. After many years of toil and conscientious care, he had led his people, like Moses, to the top of the mountain range, but did not live to see the other side.

One year after his death, the South African nation went to the polls in its first-ever democratic election. The African National Congress won an overwhelming victory. The people of South Africa had cast their vote of confidence in the ANC, and in the legacy that its leaders had imprinted on its vision. This was the moment for which Oliver Tambo willingly devoted his life.

The years since his passing have tended to overshadow the role of Oliver Tambo. Without him, and his close collaborator Nelson Mandela, the revolution might not have taken the form that it did. Working closely with his comrades in exile, at home and on Robben Island, employing the time-honored style of consensus and collective ownership of decisions, Tambo became the interpreter of the revolution, its teacher, its moral guide and its mediator.

Oliver Tambo’s ideas live on in the South African constitution, in the democratic and cooperative values of the ANC and in its vision for a just, inclusive and equitable society. At a time when South Africa is reassessing its future course, it could do no better than to reflect on the legacy of Oliver Tambo, revolutionary thinker, humanist and mentor.

Adapted from South African History Online.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.