Born five years after the birth of the ANC,
Oliver Reginald Tambo spent most of his life serving in the struggle
against apartheid. 'O R', as he was popularly known by his peers, was born
on 27th October 1917 in a rural town, Mbizana, in eastern Mpondoland in
what was then the Cape Province (now Eastern Cape). His parents had
converted to Christianity shortly before he was born.
At the age of seven he began his formal
education at the Ludeke Methodist School in the Mbizana district and
completed his primary education at the Holy Cross Mission. He then
transferred to Johannesburg to attend St Peters College, in Rossettenville,
where he completed his high school education.
From St Peters, Tambo went to study at the
University College of Fort Hare, near Alice, where he obtained his
Bachelor of Science Degree in 1941. It was at Fort Hare that he first
became involved in the politics of the national liberation movement. He
led a student class boycott in support of a demand to form a
democratically elected Student's Representative Council. As a consequence
he was expelled from Fort Hare and was thus unable to complete his
Bachelor of Science honours degree.
In 1942, he returned to St Peters College
as a science and mathematics teacher. At St Peters he was to teach many
who later were to, play prominent roles in the ANC. Among these was Duma
Nokwe who became the first black South African Advocate of the Supreme
Court and a Secretary-General of the ANC.
It was while he was in Johannesburg that
Tambo threw himself body and soul into the ANC. He was among the founding
members of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944 and became its first
National Secretary. He was elected President of the Transvaal ANCYL in
1948 and national vice-president in 1949.
In the ANCYL, Tambo teamed up with Walter
Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, Dr William Nkomo, Dr
C.M.Majombozi and others to bring a bold, new spirit of militancy into the
post-war ANC. In 1946 Tambo was elected onto the Transvaal Executive of
the ANC. In 1948 he, together with Walter Sisulu, was elected onto the
National Executive Committee. This was of great significance to the ANCYL's efforts to change the ANC.
Instrumental in achieving this
transformation was the Programme of Action, piloted by the ANCYL from
branch level to the 1949 national conference at Bloemfontein. O.R. Tambo
served on the Committee that drew up the Programme of Action, which was
adopted as national policy in 1949.
The Programme of Action envisaged the
transformation of the ANC from an organisation that held public meetings
and occasionally petitioned the government to a campaigning movement that
would draw in large numbers of people through mass actions, involving
civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent
resistance. It was through these means that the ANCYL hoped to change the
ANC from an organisation addressing the African elite to a movement of
struggle involving the mass of uneducated and unskilled Black workers.
Tambo left teaching soon after the adoption
of the Programme of Action and set up a legal partnership with Nelson
Mandela. The firm soon became known as a champion of the poor, victims of
apartheid laws with little or no money to pay their legal costs.
During the Campaign of Defiance of Unjust
Laws of 1952, Oliver Tambo was among the numerous volunteers who courted
imprisonment by deliberately breaking apartheid laws. His law firm partner
and colleague, Nelson Mandela was the National volunteer in chief.
The South African government's attempts to
suppress the Defiance Campaign resulted in one of the first mass trials in
South African legal history. Though he himself was not among the accused,
Tambo was close to the trial. It resulted in the designation of Sisulu and
others found guilty of organising the Defiance Campaign as statutory
"Communists". (That is, though they were not Communists, in
terms of the violations of the Suppression of Communism Act they had
committed, the judiciary declared them "Communists" in terms of
the statute.) One result was that in 1955 Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of
the ANC was banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act and
ordered to resign his post as Secretary General.
Oliver Tambo was appointed to fill the
post, pending ratification by the annual conference.
Hounded by banning orders and other
restrictions, many of Tambo's peers were unable to attend the Congress of
the People in June 1955.
Oliver Tambo was not only on the platform
but also served on the National Action Council which headed the
mobilisation for the COP. It was because of this role that Tambo found
himself among the 156 accused in the marathon Treason Trial in 1956.
In 1958, Oliver Tambo left the post of
Secretary General to become the Deputy President of the ANC. The following
year, 1959, he like many of his colleagues was served with a five year
banning order. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Tambo was designated
by the ANC to travel abroad to set up the ANC's international mission and
mobilise international opinion in opposition to the apartheid system.
Working in conjunction with Dr
Yusuf Dadoo he was instrumental in the establishment of the South
African United Front, which brought together the external missions of the
ANC, the PAC, the SA Indian Congress and the South West African National
Union (SWANU). As a result of a very successful lobbying campaign the
South African United Front was able to secure the expulsion of South
Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961. After this initial success the SAUF
broke up in July 1961.
Assisted by African government, Tambo was
able to establish ANC mission in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and in London. From
these small beginnings, under his stewardship the ANC acquired missions in
27 countries by 1990. These include all the permanent members of the UN
Security Council, with the exception of China, two missions in Asia and
one in Australasia.
The suppression of the 1961 stay-at-home
strike led to the ANC adopting the armed struggle as part of its strategy.
Tambo was again an important factor in securing the co-operation of
numerous African governments in providing training and camp facilities for
In 1965 Tanzania and Zambia gave the ANC
camp facilities to house trained Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) combatants. In
1967, after the death of ANC President General Chief Albert J. Luthuli,
Tambo became Acting president until his appointment to the Presidency was
approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.
During the 1970s Oliver Tambo's
international prestige rose immensely as he traversed the world,
addressing the United Nations and other international gatherings on the
issue of apartheid. He became the key figure in the ANC's Revolutionary
Council (RC) which had been set up at the Morogoro Conference to oversee
the reconstruction of the ANC's internal machinery and to improve its
When Portuguese colonialism collapsed in
1975, the ANC stood poised to take maximum advantage of the geo-political
changes. Angola offered camp and training facilities for MK, and the long-
standing relationship with Frelimo enabled the ANC to acquire diplomatic
facilities close to South Africa.
In 1985 Tambo was re-elected ANC President
at the Kabwe Conference. In that capacity he served also as the Head of
the Politico-Military Council (PMC) of the ANC, and as Commander in Chief
of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Among black South African leaders, Oliver
Tambo was probably the most highly respected on the African continent, in
Europe, Asia and the Americas. During his stewardship of the ANC he raised
its international prestige and status to that of an alternative to the
Pretoria Government. He was received with the protocol reserved for Heads
of State in many parts of the world.
During his years in the ANC, Oliver Tambo
played a major role in the growth and development of the movement and its
policies. He was among the generation of African nationalist leaders who
emerged after the Second World War who were instrumental in the
transformation of the ANC from a liberal-constitutionalist organisation
into a radical national liberation movement.
In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke, and
underwent extensive medical treatment.
He returned to South Africa in 1991, after
over three decades in exile. At the ANC's first legal national conference
inside South Africa, held in Durban in July 1991, Tambo was elected
National Chairperson of the ANC. He was also chairperson of the ANC's
Oliver Reginald Tambo died from a stroke at
3.10am on 24 April, 1993.