On 27 October 1917, the village of Nkatolo in the town of Bizana, nestled between the modern-day provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu Natal, saw it fitting and necessary to gift South Africa and the world a son. His parents would give him the name Kaizana. The people outside his family and beyond the view of Nkatolo would come to know and revere him as Oliver Reginald Tambo. True to its generosity, Bizana would later in 1936 bless South Africa and the world with another lodestar – the indefatigable Nomzamo Zanyiwe Winfred “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela.
Kaizana Oliver Reginald Tambo, or OR as he was affectionately called, was a remarkable personality. This was an ordinary man – that is what he often implied about himself – whom circumstances threw into an extraordinary situation, and with the benefit of hindsight, we should be grateful to those circumstances – albeit unpleasant – for blessing us with the person and leadership of OR Tambo.
This is how he described his earlier plans to his wife, before the life of struggle for a free South Africa pointed him in another direction. He says: ‘I had other plans for my life. I wanted to be a minister of the Anglican Church with Bishop Clayton. After we married, I was going to train for the ministry in Cape Town. But God had other plans for me. God’s plan was for me to fight in the political liberation for my people.’ It must have been exasperating for Mme Adelaide to hear such clever retorts whenever she asked her husband to slow down from overworking himself. Such witty remarks were typical of Tambo. But then again who could challenge or argue with God’s plan?
One Canon John Collins was also a recipient of Tambo’s sharp replies. He had dared to challenge Tambo about his camaraderie with communist countries, particularly the Soviet Union, a topic that had become common amongst Westerners and one that OR seemingly relished. He said to Collins: ‘If you are drowning and somebody throws you a rope, you don’t stop to ask about his political beliefs.’
In 1960 the leadership of the ANC (African National Congress) instructed OR Tambo – then deputy President General of the liberation movement – to leave the country and continue the struggle beyond the borders of South Africa. The apartheid government, with its relentless might and power, was clamping down on leaders of the liberation movements – especially those of the ANC and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) after the Sharpville Massacre on March 21st. Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, president of PAC and other senior leaders of the organisation gave themselves up at Mofolo police station and other police stations around the country to be arrested. Sobukwe would be imprisoned beyond his sentence by a mindless state that had no care whatsoever for black lives. Sharp, learned, eloquent and feared by the government, Sobukwe would be described by then Minister of Justice BJ Voster as ‘a person who has a strong, magnetic personality’. Even the not so bright apartheid government could recognise talent when they see one, their inhumanity notwithstanding. Realising that Verword’s government could cripple them, the ANC sent Tambo and other senior leaders of the movement into exile to keep the fire burning.
President General – a title Tambo would reluctantly assume – led the people’s movement for thirty years in exile, creating enough noise that forced the regime, business and the masses around the world to pay serious attention to the cries and struggles of black people in South Africa. Possessed with a spirit that could only be compared to a driven and ambitious entrepreneur, Tambo traversed the globe, pitching the ANC to ‘investors’ – governments, business and civil society – as a startup with the right tools to steer South Africa into the straight, eventually building the organisation into the largest liberation movement on the continent – a startup evolving years later into a major corporation that currently leads Africa’s most southern country. Some had opined that the ANC under the leadership of OR had become a government ruling South Africa from outside the country. The people enjoyed an opportunity to remind the Nationalist Party that their rightful leaders were either in prison or in exile, something that riled the apartheid thugs.
For all his years as the leader of the ANC, OR Tambo never let power corrupt him, often saying that he was only holding the ropes for his comrade and friend Nelson Mandela who was then serving a life sentence in prison. Unlike some amongst us who today hog the seats of power – the talentless, mindless and tainted who are quick to invoke his name as if to hide their own shortcomings – Tambo remained steadfast and loyal to the liberation of his people until the end. ‘Perhaps I shall not live to see the Promised Land, but my people shall have reached it’, he said to his wife in his last days.
Many of his comrades have praised Tambo’s leadership, wisdom, humanity and arresting, quiet intellect. In 2001 his protégé Thabo Mbeki described his mind thus: ‘OR was an intellectual in the best meaning of that word. He was a person of reason, a person of rational thought and rational action…With Oliver Tambo, you had a person who could deal with both the concrete and the abstract, the specific, the particular and the general; between tactics and strategy – that dialectical interaction, OR understood very well.’ This superior quality, Mbeki argued, ‘was central to OR’s make-up and central to his behavior.’
In 1993, April 23, a mere few days after the horrific death of Chris Hani, another outstanding ANC leader, OR Tambo also made an exit from the world of the living. To borrow directly from his biographer Luli Callinicos, ‘An extraordinary life had ended.’ Of this extraordinary life, Nelson Mandela spoke glowingly at the funeral of his friend and comrade. ‘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.’
This year, the year 2017, is exactly a century since Bizana looked upon South Africa and realised that she needed hope, that she required something of value, an idea to aspire to, and for 75 years we were blessed with exactly that and more. Had he been alive Kaizana Oliver Reginald Tambo would have been celebrating his centennial birthday anniversary. It is a pity and maybe a shame that the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in preparation for the commemoration of Madiba’s own 100-years birthday anniversary in 2018, will steal this deserved limelight and rob us of the memory of OR Tambo. The mandelarisation of everything, a phenomenon that is growing at an alarming rate – something that would certainly annoy Nelson Mandela himself – particularly by the Nelson Mandela Foundation is something that South Africans should guard against as it threatens to further divide our nation. For as former president Thabo Mbeki correctly argues: ‘Oliver Tambo has not taken his rightful place in our national memory…the contribution of this humble but brilliant patriot and mentor of our movement has been overlooked.’ One would hope that Sello Hatang and his team at the Nelson Mandela Foundation would kindly permit that 2017 be the year that the memory of OR Tambo comes alive in the minds of South Africans. Kgotsong!