Celebrating the legacy of Oliver Reginald Tambo

Oliver Reginald Tambo would have turned ninety seven years old on 27 October 2014 had we been given the privilege to share just a few more years with him in our midst.

It has, over the years, become increasingly difficult to talk about a man of President Tambo’s stature because almost all the basic facts about him are common knowledge.

This therefore implies that we must dig deeper to find the true meaning of President Tambo’s life as it relates both to our movement, the African National Congress, as well as the South African society as a whole.

Against this background and in this context, let me refer to what our Strategy and Tactics document requires of all cadres of our movement.

The document asserts:

“The activism of the ANC among the motive forces should be a responsibility of members and leaders alike, informed by a coherent cadre policy that takes into account career-pathing among its activists. And wherever they are to be found, ANC cadres should act as the custodians of the principles of fundamental social change; winning respect among their peers and society at large through exemplary conduct. They must be informed by values of honesty, hard work, humility, service to the people and respect for the laws of the land”.

President OR Tambo was indeed, for the better part of his adult life, an embodiment of all that was good about the ANC, and was the pride – body and soul – of the ANC. He was the chief custodian of the principles of fundamental social change.

He won the respect of his peers and the world at large through his exemplary conduct. He was a repository of the best values and principles upon which our movement was founded and sustained. He truly represented the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the masses of our people.

The commemoration of OR Tambo this year takes place within many general and specific contexts. Foremost amongst these, South Africa has this year marked twenty years of freedom and a stable constitutional democratic order, an unparalleled achievement in our continent so indicative of the triumph of our human spirit.

Equally important, OR Tambo’s movement, the ANC, is now at an advanced age of over one hundred and two years and thus requires constant and consistent efforts aimed at organizational renewal.

I am mentioning these two contexts to make the point that it is impossible to imagine the success of both South Africa and the ANC without drawing lessons from so inspiring a life as that of Oliver Reginald Tambo.

In order to build the South Africa of our dreams and the ANC that is unquestionably capable of organizing society and leading it, we must draw the best lessons from the life of OR Tambo.

We must strive to entrench and solidify the principles and values which defined the life of President Tambo and which singled him out from among his peers as “the great giant who strode the globe like a colossus”.

It is in this spirit that the 2014 election manifesto of the ANC committed us to remain true to our values of courage, service, self-sacrifice, human solidarity, integrity, humility, honesty, hard-work, self-discipline and mutual respect. We are proud to have had in OR Tambo a President who understood and taught us in practice the true meaning of all these values.

The unity and cohesion of the ANC during the darkest days when all seemed hopeless, is owed to him as the leader who held the movement together against the odds.

Those who knew OR will attest to his caring manner which would make him take keen interest in the personal matters of comrades in exile.

He had the rare capability to make everyone he talked to feel special and considered. If we learn from him, we will be able to build a truly united and cohesive South Africa and a caring society.

It is a well-known fact that President Tambo sacrificed his promising career as a lawyer when it was agreed that he must leave South Africa in order to establish the external mission of the ANC.

OR Tambo subjected himself to the will of his movement and this makes the epitome of self-sacrifice and selflessness. The inheritors of his legacy must learn from this trait.

In order to appreciate the full meaning of OR Tambo in our movement, we must understand his life as representing all stages an ANC cadre must go through, from being a member of the ANC Youth League to becoming a stalwart deserving of the highest honour that the ANC can bestow on any of its members, the Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe award.

As a youth leaguer during the formative years of the ANC Youth League, the conduct of OR Tambo and the rest of his generation like Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others defined the impulsiveness of youth as the flare of militancy.

In the early days of the Youth League, contradictions arose on strategic reasoning between the Tambo’s generation and the leadership of the ANC.

These contradictions were around matters of political strategy, with the Youth League forcefully advocating the adoption of more militant means to engage the Apartheid regime and with the leadership of the ANC impatiently dismissing them as disrespectful, adventurist and irresponsible children.

It is important to note that this contradiction between the two age groups was (and still is) representative of the cliché that “the old refuse to give way to the young and the young become impatient with the old’.

Of course, the ANC Youth League emerged victorious in this particular instance with the ANC adopting its militant political strategy of mass campaigns involving defiance, mass protests, boycotts and stay-aways.

The leadership of the ANC Youth League during this period fought its battles in a disciplined manner, within the ranks of the ANC until their perspective ultimately prevailed about which methods of struggle to pursue, when the ANC finally adopted the militant Programme of Action at its 1949 National Conference.

OR Tambo and his comrades were to be at the head and centre of all ANC Campaigns from the 1950’s onwards.

These included the Defiance Campaign, the Adoption of the Freedom Charter, Treason Trials and the anti-pass campaigns and the adoption of the armed struggle.

Quite interestingly, by 1969, twenty five years after the formation of the radical and militant Congress Youth League by his generation, OR Tambo was now President of the ANC faced with the same contradictions over political strategy; once again representing the fundamental differences in thinking between the young and the old who nonetheless operate in the same political space and organization.

The Hani memorandum criticizing the leadership of the ANC for being complacent in exile is but one example of such contradictions.

The youth of the ANC and MK, of which Chris Hani was part, was convinced of the need for more militant ways of engaging in military offensives against the Apartheid regime.

Having been one of the chief agitators of the 1949 programme of action, President Oliver Tambo was now part of the old guard taking a rather measured and cautious approach to struggle, having carefully considered all factors and acting in the best interest of the revolution, informed by many years of experience.

Indeed contradictions between the young and the old have always existed in our movement and are in themselves not wrong.

They are informed by the mere fact that different generations are born into different epochs and therefore their consciousness will be developed by the material conditions to which they are socialized.

When celebrating OR, we are also celebrating internationalism and his contribution to it.

He gave the South African struggle against apartheid an international appeal, by running an effective international campaign to isolate the apartheid regime.

In the true spirit of internationalism and human solidarity which OR Tambo espoused, the ANC remains committed to promoting peace, development, democracy and prosperity on our continent as a precondition for a better Africa and a better world.

In OR’s memory, we also re-affirm our support for campaigns of people who are still struggling for freedom, democracy and self-determination.

In particular, we reaffirm our unwavering support to the people of Palestine and the Western Sahara. We also stand with the people of Cuba as they fight for economic freedom, in their long struggle against the American Blockade against Cuba.

We do so certain that Isithwalandwe-Seaparankoe President Oliver Reginald Tambo would have done the same. As we mark 20 years of freedom, we live in a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. Oliver Reginald Tambo played an instrumental role in nurturing those principles to us and in our movement.

Oliver Tambo also fought very hard for equality and the emancipation of women within the ranks of our movement which we should continue to champion and take forward within the ANC.

Perhaps, the most important legacy that Oliver Tambo left for our movement was the legacy of unity, as he reported at the first ANC Conference inside the country in July 1991, he emphasised the issue of unity by saying:

“Before I sit down, I wish to make a few observations: we did not tear ourselves apart because of lack of progress at times. We were always ready to accept our mistakes and to correct them. Above all we succeeded to foster and defend the unity of the ANC and the unity of our people in general. Even in bleak moments, we were never in doubt regarding the winning of freedom. We have never been in doubt that the people’s cause shall triumph”.

It is our task as inheritors of his great legacy, to defend and protect the unity of the ANC and the unity of our people, in memory of Oliver Reginald Tambo.

>> Jacob Zuma is President of the African National Congress and President of the Republic of South Africa.

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