Remembering anti-apartheid hero O.R Tambo
24 April marked the 25th anniversary of Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo’s death. Tambo was
anti-apartheid activist, politician and revolutionary who served at the helm of the African
National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991. 25 years since his death, his contribution to a
free democratic South Africa founded on the principle of equality remains invaluable.
Tambo began his political activism during his undergraduate studies at Fort Hare University
where he met Nelson Mandela. In his “Long Walk to Freedom” Mandela describes being
impressed by Tambo’s “thoughtful intelligence and sharp debating skills.” It was also at Fort
Hare, where Tambo experienced the cost of taking a stand against injustice and inequality.
Tambo was an active student leader and this activism eventually led to his expulsion from
In 1942 he was forced to return to Johannesburg where he taught science and mathematics
at St Peters, the school where had he had, years earlier, completed his high school
education. This would prove to instrumental as it was in Johannesburg where Tambo
immersed himself in the ANC and its development. He was one of the founding members of
the ANC Youth League and became its first National Secretary.
The ANC, accredits him and few others with promoting a new militant strategy to challenge
the brutality of apartheid. Tambo and others in the Youth League, took the ANC from
petitions and protests to acts of civil disobedience, strikes and non-cooperation in the fight
against apartheid. Whilst many ANC members advocated for a non-violent approach, others
saw it as the only way to release the yoke of oppression. This divide between non-violence
and fighting fire with fire, is a common feature of all liberation and equality movements
across the world, and the ANC and its members were no exception.
Having studied law by correspondence, Tambo was not only a pioneer in the ranks of the
Party but he was also a legal pioneer as Mandela and him opened one of the first black
owned law firms in South Africa in 1952. Working out of small, shabby office (typical of the
spaces black South Africans were allowed to inhabit by order of the apartheid government)
the firm “Mandela and Tambo Attorneys” served the black community and helped them take
necessary legal action against their oppressors.
They were inundated with people in need, and they worked tirelessly to help as many as they
could. To many black South Africans, the law firm was the only place they could receive
genuine assistance and have their grievances heard. It was a place where they were treated
fairly and with kindness and dignity – an all too rare occurrence in the lives of the average
black person during the days of apartheid. “Mandela and Tambo Attorneys” also generated a
great deal of pride as clients were proud of being represented by a fellow black person and
inspired to see two young black lawyers fighting for a just cause in an unjust society.
Tambo continued to rise in the ranks of the ANC and by 1958 he was Deputy President of
the ANC. Having been identified by the apartheid government as a threat and one of the
defiant leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, Tambo, began to fear for his life and ended
up in exile in 1959. Tambo took this as an opportunity to fight against apartheid from the
outside by galvanising international and regional support for the ANC.
In 1967 Tambo became Acting President of the ANC filling the shoes of Albert Luthuli who
had died in an accident. Tambo was elected president in 1969 and again in 1985. He
travelled extensively, raising the international status of the ANC and not only keeping the
international community abreast of the situation South Africa, but encouraging them to
proactively fight against apartheid.
Tambo was also known as a strong proponent of women's rights. He stood for the
emancipation of women and affirmed and encouraged their participation in politics and in all
spheres of life.
The ANC attributes him with the transformation of the party from “a liberal-constitutionalist
organisation to a radical national liberation movement”. After over 30 years in exile and a
after suffering a severe stroke Tambo was finally able to return to South Africa in 1991.
Tambo died from a heart attack on 24 April 1993, 14 days after the assassination of Chris
Hani, and 2 days before he could bear witness to South Africa’s first democratic election.
He is fondly remembered and deeply respected for his wisdom, passion and contribution to a
non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa. His life and legacy continue to remind us all
that it is, “Our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where
there will be neither Whites nor Blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity.”
**This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 25 April 2018