MARGARET CHISANGA and FRANCIS CHEWE, Lusaka
IF AT all there was a life after death, one from which the dead could view and overhear the conversations and opinions of those living on earth, then Oliver Tambo would be smiling at the knowledge that Zambian leaders he interacted with held him in high esteem as an exemplary leader who ensured the world clearly understood the role of the African National Congress in helping to liberate all South Africans from the apartheid regime.
Veteran politician Vernon Mwaanga, who served in different government capacities during the time Tambo had set up the headquarters of the ANC foreign mission (1967-1991) in Zambia, shared fond memories of nights filled with long political discussions when Tambo spent some time at his home, sometimes in need of safety.
Born Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo on October 27, 1917, but fondly remembered as OR, he was a beacon of hope and transition from the apartheid era to the much-desired freedom by all South Africans. When he was not travelling across the globe to garner support for the ANC, Tambo carried out this inspirational role from a two-storey house he lived in for over 10 years in the leafy suburbs of Lusaka’s Avondale residential area.
Mr Tambo was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary from 1967 to 1991, fighting for the freedom of South Africans with world icon Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, among others.
His name, to this day, resonates with strength, wisdom, fearlessness, courage and great vision. To immortalise him in the history of South Africa, the government of South Africa has named several infrastructures after him, including the main international airport in Johannesburg. Today, the house, in which Tambo lived will officially be turned into a national heritage site. It will be called Oliver Reginald Tambo House.
Tambo was born in the village of Kantilla, Bizana, in the Mpondoland (eQawukeni), Eastern Cape. After his birth, Oliver was christened Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, whose forces fought the British during World War 1. This was his father’s way of showing opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878.
He was enrolled at a school located about a kilometre from his home when he was only six years old. His teacher informed him that he had to have a “school name” and therefore, his father gave him the name Oliver. In April 1928, Tambo and his brother Alan enrolled at the Anglican Holy Cross Missionary School at Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape where he was sponsored through the help of Joyce and Ruth Goddard, who assisted by sending a sum of £10 every year to cover their educational costs.
Tambo initially wanted to study medicine, but at the time, no tertiary medical school accepted black students in that field. He opted to study sciences at the College of Fort Hare. It was there that he first met Nelson Mandela, where both were members of the Students Christian Association.
In 1941, a white man in charge of the university kitchen assaulted black women working there. An enquiry into the issue exonerated him. The students convened a meeting, and following intense debate, influenced by Tambo’s guidance, they staged a class boycott. In 1942, he was unanimously elected chairperson of the Students’ Committee of his residence, Beda Hall. He, along with several others, including Mandela, was expelled from Fort Hare University for participating in this protest.
Tambo, Mandela and Walter Sisulu were among the founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1943. Tambo became the league’s first national secretary and a member of the national executive in 1948. 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 to achieve the group’s goals and proposed their own ‘Programme of Action’. This programme advocated tactics such as boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes and non-collaboration.
In 1955, Tambo became secretary general of the ANC and in 1958, he rose to the position of deputy president. In 1959, he was served with a five-year ban by the government. In 1967, Tambo became acting president of the ANC.
LIFE IN EXILE
Tambo, a born leader, always longed to work for humanity. In 1952, Tambo and Mandela established a law firm with a vision to help less privileged South Africans. But fate and destiny led him into politics and, subsequently, into exile.
In 1960, Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mobilise opposition against apartheid. He first established an office for ‘external mission’ in London, where he settled with his family in Muswell Hill, north London.
However, the headquarters of the external mission soon moved to Dar es Salaam and then Morogoro in Tanzania. However, the ANC’s external headquarters was located for the longest time in Lusaka, Zambia, as he came to love the country and saw in it his second home. It is said that when he first landed in Lusaka in 1964, he exclaimed: “It is just like the Transvaal [Gauteng]!”
Because Tambo and Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda operated on much the same political wavelength, they increasingly became so close to each other that Tambo, who had previously moved from one safe house to another, was finally accommodated in his own protected residence and interacted with several of Zambia’s leaders.
Veteran politician Sikota Wina, described Tambo as an exemplary leader who carried the responsibility of the ANC on his shoulders in a dignified and disciplined manner.
“We found him to be very mature, very humble, and South Africa was blessed to have a leader like him,” he said in an interview.
Hugh Macmillian sums up Tambo’s contribution thus: “The increasing popularity of the ANC, and its subsequent success in South Africa, was due, in part, to the way Oliver Tambo and other leaders were able to maintain the ANC in exile, in spite of huge difficulties and internal tensions. Its ultimate success was a result of its achievement in establishing itself internationally as the most legitimate voice of the voiceless people of South Africa.”
Tambo suffered a stroke in 1993, a year before the 1994 general election, in which Mandela became President of South Africa.
In the words of Mr Mwaanga, Tambo was a true son of Africa, and Zambia was lucky to host him.