Today in history: Birthday of South African liberation fighter Oliver Tambo

Oliver Reginald Tambo, South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991, was born on this date in 1917. Fondly known as O. R., he was born in the village of Nkantolo in Bizana in eastern Pondoland in what is now Eastern Cape.

Tambo attended Holy Cross Mission School, and then transferred to St. Peters in Johannesburg. He qualified to do his university degree at the University of Fort Hare. In 1940 he, along with several others including Nelson Mandela, was expelled from Fort Hare for participating in a student strike. In 1942 Tambo returned to his former high school in Johannesburg to teach science and mathematics.

Tambo, Mandela and Walter Sisulu were the founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1943, and O.R. became its first national secretary and later a member of the national executive. The youth league proposed a change in tactics of the anti-apartheid movement. Previously the ANC had sought to further its cause by actions such as petitions and demonstrations; the Youth League felt these actions were insufficient and proposed their own program of action, which advocated boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes and non-collaboration.

In 1955, Tambo became secretary general of the ANC after Walter Sisulu was banned by the South African government under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1958 he became deputy president of the ANC and in 1959 was served with a five-year banning order by the government.

In response, Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mobilize opposition to apartheid. He settled with his family in London, where he lived until 1990.He was involved in the formation of the South African Democratic Front. In 1967, Tambo became acting president of the ANC, following the death of Chief Albert Luthuli.

The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)in 1997-98 identified Tambo as the person who gave final approval for the May 20, 1983 Church Street bombing, which resulted in the deaths of 19 people and injuries to 217. In a 1985 interview, Tambo was quoted as saying, “In the past, we were saying the ANC will not deliberately take innocent life. But now, looking at what is happening in South Africa, it is difficult to say civilians are not going to die.”

The ANC’s submission said that the bombing was in response to a South African cross-border raid into Lesotho in December 1982 which killed 42 ANC supporters and civilians, and the assassination of Ruth First, an ANC activist and wife of Joe Slovo, in Maputo, Mozambique. It claimed that 11 of the casualties were South African armed forces personnel and hence a military target. Although the case was robustly contested, the TRC ultimately granted amnesty to the militants.

Such was the conundrum facing the democratic movement when all legal avenues of advancement had effectively been closed.

In 1985 Tambo was re-elected president of the ANC. He returned to a much changed South Africa on December 13, 1990, after over 30 years in exile.

The strong fight against apartheid at home needed proactive public representation abroad, and Oliver Tambo eloquently filled that role. He nurtured many intense international relationships. In 1977 Tambo signed the first solidarity agreement between ANC and a municipality, the Italian town of Reggio Emilia. Tambo served as a spokesman and advocate before the world, encouraging legislative motions and demonstrations of support for black South Africans, and working with the socialist countries to arrange for military training and the supply of arms at a time when the capitalist world stood firmly aligned with apartheid. The moral and material solidarity offered in the spirit of socialist internationalism should never be forgotten.

Tambo died of a stroke in Johannesburg on April 24, 1993, at the age of 75, missing by a year the election of his old friend and law partner Nelson Mandela to the presidency of the new South Africa.

Johannesburg International Airport was named after O. R. Tambo with a formal ceremony on October 27, 2006, so that virtually all visitors coming into the country will be familiar with his name.

The grave of Oliver Tambo and his wife Adelaide was declared a National Heritage site in October 2012.

Nelson Mandela’s says a great deal about Tamboin his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. In a passage about his early days as a lawyer in Johannesburg, before setting up a legal practice together, Mandela says, “Oliver Tambo was then working for a firm called Kovalsky and Tuch. I often visited him there during his lunch hour, and made a point of sitting in a Whites Only chair in the Whites Only waiting room. Oliver and I were very good friends, and we mainly discussed ANC business during those lunch hours. He had first impressed me at Fort Hare, where I noticed his thoughtful intelligence and sharp debating skills. With his cool, logical style he could demolish an opponent’s argument – precisely the sort of intelligence that is useful in a courtroom.”

Adapted from Wikipedia and other sources.

Photo: Wikipedia (CC)


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.