Visiting Tambo’s birthplace

By Chris Bathembu

West of Bizana in the Eastern Cape, below the majestic Ngele Mountains that stretch all the way to Kwazulu Natal, is the peaceful and quiet village of Nkantolo.   

This is where Oliver Reginald Tambo was born, grew up and attended school.

At first glance, Nkantolo village looks like any other village in South Africa.

Like many villages, it is loosely held together by several gravel roads which are a feature of all South African rural areas. Houses are made up of mud, grass and stones and virtually every second dwelling has a rondavel or two.  Chicken, sheep and goats can be seen patrolling the streets. Locals wave at passing vehicles while children, some with hardly any clothes on, run up and down the hills -seemingly carefree and enjoying themselves.

Attractions at this village include the Oliver Tambo Garden of Remembrance which is situated near a hill and supervises the village.  The site of the Garden of Remembrance was chosen for one reason. It used to host the home where Tambo was born on 27 October 1917. This is where he used to look after the family cattle and other livestock. He learned many things here, including hunting for birds and stick fighting.

After his birth, Oliver was baptised Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, whose forces fought the British during World War 1. Historians say this was his father, Mzimeni’s way of showing opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878.

In 1946, the Tambo family had to move to another site when the old houses in the family compound collapsed. The one bedroom flat Tambo utilised whenever he visited his home is still standing after undergoing refurbishments in recent years.

On the other side of the Garden of Remembrance, a few kilometres from the Tambo homestead is the road leading to Mbhobheni School, one of the first schools he attended in his days as a child.  While current children at school may know very little about Tambo, for the community here, the school is their pride - having produced one of South Africa’s finest politicians who would become central in the country’s liberation history.

Oliver Tambo led the African National Congress through its darkest days and became its longest serving leader in countries like London and Zambia where the party operated until it was unbanned in South Africa in 1990. Tambo’s ability to keep the ANC together in London and later in Lusaka is probably the reason he is known the world over. Nobody lands at Africa’s biggest airport in Johannesburg without hearing the name of this icon. 

But to the village of Nkantolo and to his remaining family members there, he was and remains more than just a hero and a liberation stalwart. To them, he was a son, father, grandfather and a local hero who had put the Nkantolo and the greater town of Binaza on the map. All Tambo’s siblings had since died with his last surviving sister Getrude passing away in 2014 at the age of 84. Tambo himself would have been 100 years old this year had he lived. He died in April 1993, just a year before South Africa could hold its first democratic elections, something he had fought for his entire political life.

It’s perhaps for this reason that on the occasion of his centenary, government saw it fit to declare 2017 as “The year of Oliver Tambo”. It’s a fitting tribute considering the sacrifices this legend has made for both his political party and his country he so loved but had to flee due to political persecution.

Some have asked why the government would honour Tambo in this way so much to dedicate the whole year to an individual’s memory. Not even Nelson Mandela had been honoured in this fashion. Although Tambo never made it into government like Mandela and others had, South Africa would probably not have a constitutional government without the sacrifices made by Tambo and others who fled the country to keep the fight for liberation going abroad. While Mandela and others were kept in prison, Tambo led the call for their release and for South Africa to end apartheid.   

Back in Nkantolo, his family and fellow villagers suffered under the abusive system of apartheid which condemned them to poverty and underdevelopment.

Today his nephew Mzukisi Tambo and his brothers are working very hard to preserve the icon’s legacy.  They make a living through livestock farming and managing heritage sites such as the Tambo Garden of Remembrance that honour their late uncle.

During a visit by SAnews to the modest home of the Tambos, it was almost unbelievable that this is a place that one of South Africa’s great legends once called home. There is nothing special about the house, at least from the structural point of view. It looks like any other house  in the neighbourhood. Except of course for a one bedroom flat that the family says used to be occupied by Tambo whenever he visited. It’s a piece of history that they are determined to preserve.

“We are told that whenever he came around before he fled the country from Johannesburg - that is the room he used. In recent years it was not in a good condition and as such government came here and when they were renovating the whole house, they renovated that flat as well,” says Mzukisi Tambo.

He also takes us to the wooden church where Tambo attended school. The Ludeke Methodist church is situated about 15 kilometres from the Tambo homestead and is regarded as a great historic building by the locals with Nelson Mandela and Winnie having also tied the knot in the same church. Although, the old structure of the church, founded by Reverend Clarke of Methodist Church, is still in good condition, a new modern building has been constructed nearby to cater for the needs of modern church goers.

“It is our pride this church not only because two of South Africa’s icons began their marriage life here but this church also served as a place of home for many people during those dark days. It still is a centre of home for the community to this day,” says local elder Lungiswa Pepeta. It is at the church that Tambo sat for his standard six schooling. Missionary schools were popular in South Africa in the nineteenth century and they provided education to many black elites.  Pepeta, who is approaching the age of 80, grew up in the village and lived the same life Tambo would have had, had he not left for Johannesburg where he became a lawyer and opened a firm with Nelson Mandela.

Also nearby is Mbhobheni School, one of the first schools young Tambo attended.  The ruins of the old classrooms have long settled into the earth and a more proper structure is now being used. This is where Tambo learned about European history and how Europeans arrived in South Africa. Here he was also introduced to formal music, which became a lifelong activity and hobby.

But it cannot be said that at this stage the young Tambo was aware of the political situation of his people inflicted upon them by the Europeans. At the age of 16, while on holiday in Kantolo, Tambo and some friends formed the Bizana Students Association (BSA). He was elected secretary of the organisation. Although this was probably the early indication of his leadership qualities.

Many historians say it was at university and later when he joined the African National Congress Youth League that Tambo became radicalised. His upbringing in Nkantolo and the various schools he attended would have shaped his political life but it definitely di not influence it. Tambo initially wanted to study medicine, but at the time, no tertiary medical school accepted Black students in that field. He opted to study the sciences at the then-named College of Fort Hare. It was here that he would meet his lifelong friend and comrade Mandela. In 1942, he was unanimously elected chairperson of the Students' Committee of his residence, Beda Hall. After three years, Tambo graduated with a B.Sc. degree in Mathematics and Physics from Fort Hare. He then enrolled for a diploma in higher education.

He was expelled at Fort Hare due to his political activities on campus and later set off to Johannesburg where he met Walster Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. 

Professor Luvuyo Wotshela. Director of the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre at Fort Hare says although Fort Hare may not have been Tambo’s launch pad for his radicalism, the university did shape his radical thinking and political activism.

“It was at this university where he was exposed to different young leaders from across the continent who were thinking the same as him. It was also at Fort Hare where Tambo began to organise student marches and this really influenced his future which was the joining of the ANC Youth League,” he tells SAnews.

“He was a very young man when he arrived at Fort Hare full of ideas and rubbed shoulders with key young people who influenced him and shaped him for what could later be his role in the ANC and the struggle for liberation,” says Wotshela.  

Although Tambo left South Africa for exile in 1960, his presence was felt in the country throughout his exile years as he built the ANC from outside ensuring it was strong and ready when the time to govern arrived.

The government says it’s for this contribution Tambo made that makes the 2017 centenary of Oliver Tambo befitting. Recently, President Jacob Zuma launched the Mbizana Rural Enterprise Development RED Hub in honour of Tambo’s legacy.  Government says the hub, as one of its  efforts to stimulate growth through agriculture and agro-processing, will alleviate poverty and address low levels of development in the district. The development is also expected to stimulate local economic development as well as the investment drive to expand beyond agriculture and traditional subsistence farming.  Farmers in Bizana will now be able to move from subsistence to commercial farming. This is something that Oliver Tambo would be proud of.  – SAnews.gov.za