OR Tambo – an icon who fought for a just and peaceful society

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Government has declared this year as “The Year of Oliver Reginald Tambo”.  SAnews reporter Bathandwa Mbola reminds us of some of the values that this icon stood for.

For those who knew Tambo personally, or those of us who at least learned about him from books and history records, this is a rare opportunity to reflect on the life of this giant, whose life did not only invoke admiration and respect within political circles,  but also to the lovers of freedom and human rights worldwide who came into contact with him.

President Jacob Zuma recently described Tambo as a “solution-oriented leader who always sought to move forward on the basis of building consensus. Many of his comrades have described him as a visionary man who valued and stood for unity, selflessness, sacrifice, collective leadership, humility, honesty, discipline, hard work, self-criticism and mutual respect.”

Had he lived, Tambo would have been 100 years this month. It is for this reason that government has also dedicated the month of October to his memory.

As history has shown, some of the best leaders that South Africa has produced are from humble beginnings. Tambo was also one such leader, having been born in the village of Kantolo, Bizana, in the Mpondoland region of the Eastern Cape. This is where Tambo grew up. He used to look after the family cattle and other livestock. He learned many things here, including hunting for birds and stick fighting.

On completion of his primary and secondary schooling, he went on to study at the then-named College of Fort Hare, known as the University of Fort Hare today, where he joined the Students Christian Association.

Tambo graduated with his BSc degree in Mathematics and Physics at Fort Hare and further enrolled for a Diploma in Higher Education.

The longest ever serving president of the now governing party, the ANC, OR Tambo’s presidency firmly entrenched the commitment to realise the strategic objective to create a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.

However, those who knew Tambo say he was not only the president of the ANC during the most extreme repression of the apartheid regime. They argue, Tambo was also the leader of a global movement to destroy a system that was a crime against humanity.

Tambo was at the forefront of providing leadership for both the external and internal structures of the liberation movement against apartheid.  This saw him being not only the engineer with a coordinated expression of the mass movement, underground units and the backup of the international community against the apartheid government but a government in waiting in the eyes of the world.

He was an internationalist who understood that building strong bonds of solidarity with other nations was imperative,  not only so that South Africa may be free, but so that a better world can been realised from his struggles.

Evidence of this can be traced back to his “Mission in Exile” which he undertook after the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960. Tambo used the events of that year to garner international support for the liberation movement.

For three decades, OR, as he was affectionately known, travelled the globe meeting heads of state, union leaders, activists, business people, cultural workers, celebrities, community leaders, revolutionaries and ignited in them a shared vision of a different society and a different world which put first the rights and freedoms of ordinary people.

This saw him addressing the Organisation for African Unity, the United Nations and other international gatherings mobilising support against apartheid.

He galvanised support from ordinary men and women and governments in Africa and the Diaspora and also nurtured the growth of vibrant anti-apartheid movements in Europe and other parts of the world.

He nurtured solidarity with the Soviet Union, Cuba, China and other countries to which today, the democratic government still values and maintains.

His comrades rightly describe him as a thinker and an intellectual of note, who promoted lengthy intellectual debates that led the way for the advances and political achievements of the liberation movement.

As a  teacher, Tambo used his time to promote Nelson Mandela as a worldwide symbol of resistance and political freedom, initiated the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth.

Due to his tireless advocacy, the United Nations declared apartheid in 1973 as a "crime against humanity", and South Africa was expelled from world football body FIFA, and economic sanctions were instituted while sports and cultural boycotts were declared against the apartheid regime.

His success with international mobilisation against apartheid is evidenced by the fact that by 1990, the ANC had 27 missions abroad- which was more than what the then South African government had.

Tambo led the crafting and the promotion of the Harare Declaration which became the roadmap for the negotiations of a future democratic South Africa.

As a good listener and a true leader, Tambo led and inspired the direction and content of the sunset clauses which created more trust around the negotiations table, and also addressed fears of the minorities and enabled South Africa to find many solutions around the negotiation tables which enabled South Africa to move on into a new future.

In between all this selfless dedication, Tambo had time to develop and teach layers of political, military, cultural and economic leaders which included women,  under his tutelage,  who  would occupy strategic leadership positions - which some occupy even today.

History tells us that what set Tambo apart from others was his unwavering commitment to serving the people of South Africa with no expectation of any personal benefit.

This affirmed a value system at the centre of which is respect for the fundamental principle and practice that leaders are there to serve the people.

Tambo sustained determination to conduct himself in his personal life so that at all times he would never betray the ethical standards which the masses he represented and led viewed as fundamental to their definition of themselves.

He was a master tactician which allowed him correctly to identify the tactical manoeuvring which would be imperative to sustain the advancement of the democratic revolution towards its victory.

Tambo also had the capacity to communicate well-thought-out, clear and relevant messages. He also showed an unwavering  commitment to his organisation and its people.

Writing about Oliver Tambo in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, the late Nelson Mandela bemoans the fact that while Tambo had lived to see the prisoners released and the exiles return, he had not lived to cast his vote in a free and democratic South Africa.

Confronted by his friend and comrade's sudden final departure after a stroke on 23 April 1993, President Mandela said: "Oliver was pure gold, there was gold in his intellectual brilliance, gold in his warmth and humanity, gold in his tolerance and generosity, gold in his unfailing loyalty and self-sacrifice.

"As much as I respected him as a leader, that is how much I loved him as a man''.

The South African Government also holds in high esteem his works as a negotiator, peacemaker and brilliant strategist.

The National Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, bestowed by the President to foreign citizens who have promoted South Africa’s interests and aspirations through cooperation, solidarity, and support, is a testament to this.

South Africa’s foreign policy is in essence a continuation of the work that Tambo advocated when he said: “We seek to live in peace with our neighbours and the peoples of the world in conditions of equality, mutual respect, and equal advantage.”

Tambo’s character represented the best example of how good leaders can contribute to forging excellence in the collectives they lead, and to raising performance to highest levels.

As the nation remembers this icon, the people of South Africa should not be apologetic in building on Tambo’s legacy to create a society envisaged in the Freedom Charter and the Constitution. The nation owes this to Tambo. – SAnews.gov.za  

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