Putting the legacy of OR Tambo into practice today

The African National Congress (ANC) has dedicated this year to OR Tambo because we are marking the centenary of his birth; and equally, to honour him, considering the role he played as a leader of the ANC, yes, but also given the manner in which he provided leadership to the ANC under very difficult conditions.

I am often asked to recount my fondest memories of this great man. Some of them are serious, others funny, some very petty, and others very small.

What stands out most for me was that he was a thinker: he was a man with which you could discuss anything. By equal measure, he was a very good listener. What always stood out for me was that you could engage in lengthy conversation, at the end of which you would realize he had been listening to and remembered every word. He chaired the National Executive Committee (NEC) for many years – at a time when such meetings met for a full week. It was in these meetings that the leadership of the ANC had time to debate and re-debate the issues at length, until we were all very clear.

This was because OR wanted members particularly at the leadership level to be thorough and clear on the issues and not discuss them superficially. He was of the view that when the time comes for you to represent the ANC you will not easily go wrong. His rigour stood out: he paid great attention to detail, so if the time came for you to present a report you needed to be very clear on your story because he would question you in detail.

OR Tambo believed unity was paramount. Not just unity of the organization but of the South African people – and he worked tirelessly to achieve it. He was not a man who favoured some above others; and we all took him as our father. I always say that even if someone complained to him about having lost their shoelaces, he would make it an issue that this person’s concerns were addressed. Such was his humility, and his concern for everyone, regardless of rank, position or status. His character and demeanour was such that anyone who had problem felt they could approach him because he would give you his time. No matter what you said, he would not look down on you, and made you feel important. Even if he was walking past you he would stop and pay attention to you – he was that kind of a leader.

It was OR who brought about a political culture of building consensus within the organization, as opposed to simply voting on matters. For him, you couldn’t just meet and discuss the issues – then pass on. It was under his leadership that building consensus emerged as the political culture of the movement. We discussed and discussed sufficiently – and by the time we concluded the issue we are all be on the same page. Namely that you, an individual were wrong, and that the meeting was right.

He was an ordinary leader, but he commanded the respect of the organization. It was not a respect he demanded, but one that came naturally because he gave each and every one his space. Although he was very particular and thorough in planning, in running the organization and in articulating his ideas, he never went out of his way to offend people. He was the consummate diplomat; so much so that even if he said you were wrong you wouldn’t feel hurt because he would explain his position to you in detail. That said, he did not hesitate to enforce party discipline. If you went wrong or were difficult, believe me he would deal with you in a way that you would never want to be difficult again.

Despite his immense responsibilities, he had time for individuals, for the collective, for the organization, and for the world. Such was his stature as an extraordinary statesman of his time that in international conferences when he would be taking the podium, all bilateral consultations would reduce because people would want to come listen to him.

Having visited Zambia recently where we had a ceremony in the home he lived in brought back memories for me of the day OR was attacked by a stroke. I remember the emotional state of all of us, myself included.

I asked myself a question: will the ANC remain the same? This was because I was convinced the ANC would never be the same again. What I believed then still holds true today. We have had many great leaders in the ANC, but OR was a man who exemplified the qualities of extraordinary leadership.

He was a man who believed in nurturing and mentoring young leaders, and did not hesitate to give serious tasks to younger generations. I remember one day discussing the very issue we were sitting in Maputo with him where he said “ this generation has done its job.. we should now allow the young people who have the potential to lead the organization, to do so.”

He drew on his own experience opening a provincial conference in 1969 soon after he had been elected as ANC Deputy President. So thorough and confident was the political analysis of the world that he gave that Chief Luthuli, who was at that conference, made a comment to the effect that elder generation even if they leave today, were leaving the organization in good hands.

If I had to write a letter to OR today I would say: My Leader, My President, I remember you all the time. Today, a century since his birth, I remember OR being a man of

incredible foresight. The other great ANC leader Moses Mabhida used to say that OR saw things years before we did, when we were yet to grasp their significance.

He always told us: the struggle is tough – but rest assured that running a country is even more difficult than fighting for freedom. What some don’t acknowledge often enough is that OR lived during the struggle. He did not live during the period he said would be more difficult than fighting for freedom. He would always say: “it is easy to break bridges when you are fighting the enemy, but when you are free it is your responsibility to build those very bridges.”

This is precisely what we are challenged with as a country today. One’s your values, understanding, everything, is in theory one thing –but putting it into practice can be quite another.

The issue for us is how do we maintain the values we all believe in, and implement them today. The people looked up to us to help liberate them, and how they expect many things from us: and sometimes the means are not there to do it all, or as quickly as they expect you to.

It is at such times that we need to examine the legacy of OR and redouble our efforts in order to succeed.

I would conclude my letter to him by saying that indeed, you were right – running a country is more difficult than fighting for freedom.

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is the President of the African National Congress

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