The Life & Time of OR Tambo

Every sporting competition is about endurance, being the best, and winning. Oliver Reginald Tambo, was the embodiment of endurance in politics. To his last day, he believed in winning– his trophy was our freedom as a nation. Like the best in sport, he never gave up till the finishing line. He ran his race in life, a very long and hard one, over many years.

It is very appropriate that we continue to pay tribute to President Tambo who is one of the founders of this great movement, the African National Congress 103 years ago.

We recently celebrated this amzing leader at the Inaguaral OR Tambo Lecture in Welkom. The town itself is an inseparable part of our history – from its mines on which the wealth of this country was built, to the many courageous struggles our people waged in places like Themba. Welkom has played a huge part in shaping the democractic South Africa. It also gave our struggle some of its own sons and daughters who were ready to pay the ultimate price for our freedom.

It was satisfying for us to remember OR (as President Tambo was popularly known) just a few days after a very successful National General Council of our ruling party that not only rejuvenated the organisation, but also reaffirmed that indeed the ANC Lives, the ANC Leads.

It gave the organisation direction and reaffirmed the values that have kept this movement together for more than a century. This is the ANC that OR dedicated his entire life to. He was to all of us, our leader.

OR would be celebrating his 98th birthday if he was still alive today, as he was born on the 27th October 1917. He did not live long enough to see the results of his political labour as he left us a year before our freedom, in April 1993.

It is therefore befitting to write about OR’s values of leadership and service.

President Tambo represents a generation that emerged in the 1940s. A generation that transformed the ANC through its Youth League. This generation gave the ANC the mass character that defines it today.

They gave us a vision through the Freedom Charter that is 60 years old this year.

They created and built the Alliance.
They formed uMkhonto Wesizwe – MK.
They led us to exile and back home after three decades.
They led us through the challenging years of the negotiations to our freedom.

They gave us our first ever democratic election in 1994.

Madiba has left us. Baba Mlangeni and Kathrada are among those of this generation. They are still with us and continue to guide us. We wish them many more years. They are our conscience, our torch bearers, connecting the past, present and the future.

We owe what we have today to this generation of our liberators. They stood up against colonial oppression not for self gain or being elected to this or that position, but to create a better future whose fruits we are witnessing and enjoying today.

We will never be able to repay these heroes and heroines. All we can do is to work for a better future for generations that will come after us. We don’t own this freedom, it is borrowed to us. We are entrusted with it to hold it dear for generations to come and beyond.

In liberating us, their generation also freed even those who were privileged by apartheid. Today no South African is forcefully conscripted to fight illegal and immoral apartheid’s illegal wars. The architects of apartheid atrocities can now walk free anywhere in this country without fear. They can now tour the world which had rejected them for the apartheid which was declared a crime against humanity.

We always say that we stand on the shoulders of great leaders. OR was one such great leader. But do we emulate these leaders whose shoulders we are burdening with the weight of the challenges of our time?

Many of the difficulties that we encounter in our country today is due to our failure to emulate these leaders.

I would like to single out a few things that I believe we can all learn from OR about leadership and the values that underpin it.

Leadership in our country is the continuation of our struggle for freedom, and we dedicate ourselves to this struggle not for selfish gains but to alleviate the plight of our people and country. The struggle is not a career or a step ladder to acquire social mobility or status. It is a service, and selfless service indeed.

In the past, being in the struggle could lend one in prison or to an unceremonial burial in some unmarked grave. It, therefore, took bravery: blood, sweat and tears to join the fight against apartheid.

Today, however, being in the struggle can give one access to power and state’s resources it commands. It can drastically change one’s life.

How do we then ensure or inculcate the values of service in our leaders when there is no sacrifice or bravery required? We used to think that political education is the solution. But even some of our most ideologially solid cadres are not always immune from the temptations that come with power and access to state resources.

Clearly, we need a combination that involves political education and a firmly grounded political understanding of people’s expectations; a consciousness that can create a better and solid cadre. However, this needs to be coupled with strong oversight bodies like the Integrity Commission at the level of the ANC, and the likes of the Auditor General in state structures.

The existence of these oversight bodies does not mean that we do not trust our cadres, but because we trust that our cadres understand the need for checks and balances in order to constantly remind ourselves of our duty and responsibilities.

We create these bodies not because we are weak, but because they are an indepensable part of any democratic system. We should, therefore, support and strengthen these bodies, because their success is in our best interest.

We have to inculcate in all of us a culture of accountability – accountability to those we represent and a sense of accountability for one’s actions. A strong culture of accountability among us will entrench a culture of responsibility and sense of duty – responsibility for one’s actions and responsibility towards those we represent. Accountability and responsibility will cultivate and strengthen one’s moral and political conscience.

At all times, what must be paramount in our minds, especially for ANC members, is why we have joined the ANC and why people vote us in power all these years. They vote for us because they trust our moral ability to create a better life for all. That’s precisely what inspired us to join the ANC. Not to enrich our selfless interets or to be self- centred.

OR was never a leader in government – a cabinet minister or councillor. He was an ordinary South African who despised apartheid’s injustices. What made his legacy so enduring and larger than life is his leadership style that always strived to attain the moral high ground. He was in the ANC yet his name is known and loved by all for what he represented and the values he cherished. He is not remembered for the size of the car he drove, but his wisdom. We do not remember him for how powerful a man he was, but his modesty. We do not remember him for his money and wealth, but for his humility, civility, wisdom and the spirit of generosity.

We always remember how he was lobbied to replace Chief Albert Luthuli as President of the ANC and how he stood firm in his refusal, pledging instead his loyalty to Chief Luthuli. He did so because he did not see leadership as power and privilege, but responsibility and service. He saw himself as part of a family; of a collective that works together for a common goal; his was not a one-man show or a glory seeking mission.

Therefore, in line with the tradition of OR and his generation, the ANC cannot sit back and allow its rich and unequalled political legacy to degenerate. Organisational renewal must be about political education in order for all its members to understand the history of our struggle, its purpose and the revolutionary morality of service and selflessness that OR invested in our political consciousness.

Organisational renewal is incompatible with slates that divide us, promote factionalism, and deprive us of the collective strength that all of us represent. The ANC of Tambo is a church, but not of one faith or denomination. It is a family with all its black sheep and the breadwinners living together in spite of their differences or different contributions each make to the collective well-being of this family.

OR was not only part of the generation that created the Alliance, he also defended it especially during the anti-communism of the Cold War days. He did so because of his firm belief in the importance of the maximum unity of the liberation forces if apartheid were to be defeated. He also understood the class nature of colonial oppression.

He understood the interconnectedness between national oppression and class exploitation, that our freedom would be meaningless and incomplete if it did not address the plight of the working class and the poor in general. Hence, in our outlook, we are stubbornly pro the poor.

If there is one thing that I will always remember OR for, it is his leadership in placing the gender question at the centre of the liberation struggle agenda.

He led in liberating the ANC from patriarchy. He led in the affirmation of women in ANC structures. He championed his belief that post-apartheid South Africa must not only be non-racial and prosperous, but also non-sexist. In his own words at the relaunch of the Women’s League in 1990, OR said:

Some of you were present at the conference of ANC Women’s Section held outside South Africa in 1981, and may recall that I observed then that: “If we are to engage our full potential in pursuit of revolutionary goals, then, as revolutionaries, we should stop pretending that women in our movement have the same opportunities as men.”

A decade later, in May this year, our National Executive Committee, in its statement on the Emancipation of Women in South Africa, reemphasised the fact that women are not present in sufficient numbers in the structures of our organisations, especially at decision-making levels, and that as a consequence we have not as yet fully integrated women`s concerns and the emancipation of women into the practice of our liberation struggle.

The decision of the NEC to take steps towards redressing this problem will only bring concrete changes if women themselves organise and act, so as to bring about the changes in attitudes amongst both men and women that have perpetuated the situation.

In 1985, President Sam Nujoma and I made a joint pledge to the women of Namibia and South Africa, that we would not consider our objectives achieved, our task completed, or our struggle to have ended, until the women of South Africa and Namibia are fully liberated.

The Freedom Charter does not mince its words on the fact that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. Yet this narrative or national imperative remains a big challenge in our country with respect to nation-building, non-racialism and national cohesion.

The Pan Africanism Congress (PAC) broke away from the ANC in 1959 to reject an inclusive and non-racial citizenship. Its wish was to drive white South Africans to the sea because they were considered to be foreigners. The Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s sought racial purity through affirming one’s blackness. The slogan was “Black man you are on your own”.

OR was already a leader in the ANC when the PAC broke away. He led the ANC during the difficult years after the Morogoro Conference of 1969 when some of our leaders refused to accept white comrades as full members of the ANC. He reached out to Black Consciousness leaders to convert them to the politics of non-racialism. Many of us who swelled the ranks of the ANC in the 1970s were BC and suspicions of whites. Nonetheless, we reluctantly accepted them as South Africans as stipulated in the Freedom Charter.

Today, we take non-racialism for granted but the journey was never easy and the accomplishment of a non-racialism South Africa in concrete terms is the struggle of today. One of the major challenges of our time is mounting incidences of racism in the country, with some political parties even organising the so-called “minorities” against what they call African majoritarianism. Race and the fear of the majority cannot be an organising political platform in this land of Tambo and Madiba. We have the historical responsibility to defeat racism as an ideology and its practice because we are serious about building a united, non-racial South Africa.

Tribalism is one scourge that the ANC has fought against since its formation in 1912. Sometimes it still rears its ugly head. But every time this happens, it must be defeated. It has no place anywhere in our country. Pixley ka Seme wrote in the aftermath of our founding congress of the ANC that:

“The 8th DAY OF JANUARY 1912 shall ever remain memorable in African history because it was on that day that the transcending influence of Letsie II brought us together at Bloemfontein. It was a conference of races and of nations—many of whose ranks had been devastated by the demon of inter-tribal strife and jealousy “.

Internationalism and solidarity with the struggling people of the world is one pillar of struggle that defined the revolutionary character of OR. He criss-crossed all corners of our planet speaking and mobilising against the monster of apartheid. He was a Pan Africanist working side by side with the likes of Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere in the OAU and the Frontline States who are today organised as SADC.

Our internationalism was not only about the isolation of apartheid or building the once strong anti-apartheid movement. It was also about the total decolonisation of Africa and our unity as the African people. The quest for the unity of Africa still remains our mission today, if this mission were to prosper it should be founded on the ideals of peace, unity and principles of democracy to foster our dream of a better Africa.

We also cannot rest on our laurels when Israel’s response to the Palestinian rightful quest for their right to self-determination with more and more violence, killings, and more and more Israeli settlements. No! We must stand firmly and loudly on the side of Palestenians in the streets and in multilateral fora. The people of Western Sahara must also see and taste freedom in their lifetime. This is OR’s wish.

Last month the United Nations adopted agenda 2030 to replace the Millenium Development Goals, as our collective Global programme to combat poverty and under development. This is an important milestone but is not enough. The reform of the United Nations, especially its Security Council, is long overdue and can not be delayed further. We want a United Nations that is representative of the diversity of the world and that embraces the ethos of the 21st Century.

Every generation has its own historic task. OR’s generation has fulfilled its task with distinction. What is ours? The task of our generation is to build a national democratic society, a mission that began in 1994.

Recently, we said we are now in the second phase of this transition that began in 1994 whose content is accelerated radical transformation of our society especially on matters related to land reforms and the economic inequality.

Apartheid has been dismantled and replaced with a democratic and representative government. The living conditions of our people have improved over the past two decades, thanks to ANC policies in their endevour to create a better South Africa and a better life for all.

But we know that more still needs to be done and quickly. We have not yet eradicated poverty. Inequality among our people is continuing to rise. About a quarter of employable South Africans are without a job, our youth being the most affected. We must treat these three challenges as a national emergency.

We are yet to make any significant dent in the ownership patterns of our economy and land two decades after we defeated apartheid.

Most fundamental to these challenges are the structural constraints we inherited from apartheid, which cannot be eradicated simply through cosmetic reforms or policy instruments.

These constraints are fundamental and require a fundamental approach that addresses their root causes. We must mobilise society in the same activistic way that we did in the past to build a national consensus on confronting these fundamental constraints in a fundamental way. Our country is a time bomb waiting to explode over these fundamental questions. We must act now.

Every night that passes without solving the problem of poverty or jobs, more anger and frustration builds on the streets. Every day that passes without democratising the ownership of our economy and land breeds conditions that threaten national cohesion and the national question.

This is the most difficult part of our transition, more difficult than the negotiations, more difficult than quelling down the fire of violence that was once part of our society.

Our success as a generation will be measured by how we succeed in resolving these fundamental challenges. Our failure will not be felt only by our generation but more by those who will inherit this country from us.

We will hand to our children a South Africa that is not free, a society that is about to explode.

As we devote our attention to these fundamental constraints, we should always remember that nations of today’s world of globalisation and ICT, are founded on skills and the knowledge economy. Centuries of colonialism in our country has left us a legacy of a skewed human resources where skills and knowledge are confined to the few, who were privileged by race in the past through job reservation measures, among others.

To this day, on the shop floor, certain key positions are out of reach of the historically disadvantaged groups. According to the logic of apartheid, black people were not supposed to be scientists or mathematicians but just a source of cheap, unskilled labour. The higher education sector was not exempted from apartheid‘s racial engineering whose legacy is behind the developments unfolding currently in our universities over transformation and access, especially for the poor.

While listening to the voice of our students on our university campuses, we have to remember that fees or statues of the likes of Cecil John Rhodes are not the only challenge. Knowledge production at these institutions and our society in general remain the preserve of the racially defined few. Those who control ideas, determine our thinking. Our nation cannot hope to realise its full potential and be competitive while the task of research and development is in the hands of a handful number of our compatriots who are white, male, and aging.

We need a national response to this question of whose ideas and knowledge dominate our society. This response requires a focus that includes even the media and the publishing industry. South Africans are not a reading nation, and this is not normal for a country that wants to prosper and reach for the skies in the 21st century. Because we are not a reading nation, we become vulnerable to those who read for us. Our critical thinking has been stunted. Our creativity has been blunted. Our struggle for mental emancipation is not yet over.

Oliver Tambo’s mission in exile lasted thirty years. Our mission since 1994 has just passed its second decade. What will our report to the next generation be? On his return to the country, addressing the 48th National Conference of the ANC in 1991, OR reported back on this mission and concluded as follows:

“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.” (Close quote)

Compatriots, as I take my seat, I am not in doubt that our generation will triumph. I am not in doubt that we are on course to build a better South Africa and a better life for our people. I am not in doubt that we will always foster and defend the unity of our people.

Oliver Tambo has finished his race. We are in the middle of ours in relaying this baton to the next generation.

Comrade Baleka Mbete is the National Chairperson of the ANC

Posted in Phambili
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