Oliver Tambo

(October 27, 1917 - April 23, 1993)

Oliver Tambo was born in the village of Kantolo, about 20 km from Bizana, in Pondoland, on 27 October 1917. His mother, Julia, was the third wife of Mzimeni Tambo, son of a farmer and assistant salesman at a local trading store. As a child Oliver was christened Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, who's forces fought the British during World War 1. This was his father's way of showing his political awareness and his opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878. His name was changed to Oliver when he went to school and was required to have an English name.

Oliver came from a stable, extended family consisting of his paternal grandparents, their three sons, spouses and grandchildren. Oliver's father had four wives and ten children and, although illiterate, was comfortably off. Mzimeni Tambo was a traditionalist, but also saw the importance of Western education and Oliver was sent to school, a place he soon became to dread as a result of a strict teacher. His father, intent on providing his children with a good education, moved them to different schools several times. As Oliver grew older he developed a desire to leave home and gain wider experience elsewhere.

"My age group, some of them, had left their homes, crossed the Umtamvuna and went to Natal to work - some in the plantations. And some were coming back, big stout chaps already. They were young men, and I was still going to this school. So I began to think in terms of leaving, escaping to go to work there as a garden boy or even in the sugar plantations. I would work there and bring back money to my parents - that's what everyone else was doing”.

Soon afterwards Tambo was given the opportunity to leave home by a family friend by enrolling at the Holy Cross missionary school at Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape. His father could not afford his fees, but Oliver displayed such enthusiasm that the school found sponsorship for him through two English sisters, who sent the sum of £10 every year to cover his costs. One of his older brothers, who was working as a migrant labourer in KwaZulu Natal, also sent a part of his wages to cover any additional costs.

Oliver excelled at his studies and after five years at the Holy Cross he was accepted at St Peter's, a well-known school for Black children in Johannesburg, where he completed his matric. For the first time he was exposed to youngsters of other traditional African cultures, as well as to institutionalised segregation and racism. When he was 16 Oliver's parents passed away within a year of each other and he was orphaned. During this time all scholars in the Transvaal wrote the same matric exams and Tambo achieved an excellent pass. The African press reported upon his achievement with pride and noted that he was from the Transkei. This resulted in the Eastern Cape assembly of chiefs, the Bhunga, granting him a bursary of £30 a year to further his education at Fort Hare University.

Tambo initially decided to study medicine, but at the time no tertiary medical school would accept Black students. He opted for a course in the sciences and three years later graduated with a B.Sc. degree in mathematics and physics. He also enrolled for a diploma in higher education. After being elected as Chairperson of the Students' Representative Council of his residence, the Anglican Beda Hall, he organised a student protest and was expelled from Fort Hare. He went back to his home in Kantolo to look for employment in order to support the younger members of his family and was offered a position as Master in Mathematics at his alma mater, St Peter's.

At that time Johannesburg was an exciting melting pot of cultures for young, upcoming Africans. Tambo soon became involved with Walter Sisulu, an estate agent who's office was used as a regular gathering place by young intellectuals. Here he met other likeminded young people like Anton Lembede, Jordan Ngubane and Nelson Mandela, a fellow student from Fort Hare. The group regularly visited the house of Dr Xuma, a medical doctor who was also the President of the African National Congress (ANC). Here they formulated a plan to revive the ANC and make it more accessible to ordinary people.

In 1944, at the ANC Congress in Batho, near Bloemfontein, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), as well as the Women's League, were established. Anton Lembede was elected chairman of the new ANCYL, with Oliver Tambo as its secretary and Walter Sisulu as its treasurer. In 1948 the National Party (NP) came into power and suddenly a number of discriminatory laws were put into place. In order to challenge these laws Tambo decided to study law through correspondence. In 1952 he joined the law practice of Nelson Mandela where they were able to assist Blacks in their struggle against apartheid. In 1953 Chief Albert Luthuli was elected President of the ANC and Tambo was appointed as national secretary in place of Walter Sisulu, who had been banned by the government as a result of the Defiance Campaign.

1955 saw the drafting of the Freedom Charter by the National Action Committee, of which Tambo was a member, resulting in the arrest of 156 members of the group. They were charged with High Treason, but after the preliminary hearings Oliver Tambo and Chief Albert Luthuli were acquitted. While most of the ANC's leaders were being detained Tambo and Luthuli led the ANC struggle, while Tambo also updated the ANC's constitution. Some factions within the movement did not approve of his new, open attitude towards conciliation and in 1959 a group led by Robert Sobukwe broke away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

During 1955 Tambo became engaged to Adelaide Tsukudu, a Youth League activist and nurse employed at Baragwanath Hospital. Their wedding had been set for December 1956, but it was nearly put off as Tambo was still being detained on treason charges. Fortunately all the accused were granted bail and the wedding took place as scheduled. The couple had three children, Thembi, Dali and Tselane, but after his exile, Tambo saw very little of his family. Adelaide supported the family and also opened her house to members of the ANC arriving from the United Kingdom.

In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre Tambo embarked on a 'Mission in Exile' in order to gain international support for the South African liberation movement. The Scandinavian countries he visited were the most receptive and he was able to articulate the ANC's objectives clearly before a supportive audience. Tambo emerged as one of the foremost advocates of women's rights within the movement.

During the 1980's Tambo, as the president of the ANC, was increasingly recognised by the Organisation for African Unity as a head of state in exile. He also promoted Nelson Mandela as a world-wide symbol of political freedom and resistance to racial intolerance.

When the possibility of opening up negotiations between the ANC and the South African government became apparent ANC members in exile began to present the movement's objectives to both its members and to the world. Tambo led the group that formulated the Harare Declaration and because of the gruelling schedule his health began to deteriorate, resulting in a mild stroke in 1982. Disregarding the advice of his medical advisors Tambo did not ease his efforts, and on 9 August 1989, after the presentation of the Harare Declaration, he collapsed and suffered a severe stroke. He and was rushed from Lusaka to London on a plane organised by President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.

While Tambo recuperated the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released. In December 1990 Oliver Tambo returned home and attended the first ANC Congress to be held inside South Africa since its banning. Nelson Mandela was elected President of the ANC and Tambo its National Chairman.

The remaining three years of his life Tambo spent at his sister's house in Kantolo, the home he had longed for during all his long years in exile.

" Looking out from my home, the site of it commanded a wide view of the terrain as it swept from the vicinity of my home and stretched away as far as the eye could see - the panorama bordered on a high range of mountains that were faced looking out from home. The Engeli Mountains were a huge wall that rolls in the distance to mark the end of a very broken landscape, landscape of great variety and, looking back now, I would say of great beauty…But the nagging question was, what lay beyond the Engeli Mountains? Just exactly what was there…How far would one be able to walk over the mountains to Egoli, Johannesburg? What sort of world would it be? What did it conceal from my view?

I saw two worlds. The one in the vicinity of my home…This was my world. I understood it from my mother's rondavel…I was part of this world. There was obviously another one beyond the Engeli Mountains."

During the early hours of the morning of 23 April 1993 Oliver Reginald Tambo suffered a massive and fatal stroke. He was honoured with a state funeral where scores of friends, supporters and heads of state bade him farewell. His epitaph is perhaps best expressed in his own words, when he said that:

"It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where there will be neither Whites nor Blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity."


http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/or/tambo_or.html#Brief - a brief biography on the ANC site

http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/or/olivertambo.htm - “Oliver Tambo: His life and legacy” by his biographer, Luli Callinicos

http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/or/index.html - “Portrait of Oliver Tambo. ANC President 1967-1991. Selected Articles, Papers, Speeches, Statements and Other Documents - 1960-1993, Compiled by E.S. Reddy”

http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1251/ANCs_cofounder_Oliver_Tambo - a brief biography from an African American registry

This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix