Tambo was an exemplary servant leader, one who took charge not for his or her own advancement or glorification, but for the good of those who looked to him or her for direction and guidance.
October 27th this year will be the centenary of the birth of Oliver Reginald Tambo, the longest-serving President of the African National Congress (ANC) and the man who, more than any other, guided the movement through the difficult years of its banning and exile, from 1960 to 1990.
There will no doubt be all sorts of commemorative events and celebrations, as the ANC invokes the memory of Tambo in the run-up to its elective conference in December. Indeed, 2017 has been named “The Year of Oliver Tambo” by the ANC, and there have been numerous references to him in speeches, at rallies, and in the ongoing debates around the party’s leadership issues.
On the ANC’s website, under the headline “2017 The Year of Oliver Reginald Tambo”, appears the slogan “Let us deepen unity!” This is the first irony. In its long existence—it was formed five years before Tambo was born—the ANC has endured many periods of uncertainty; there have been times of internal disagreement, and various tendencies have split away from the main body. The Pan Africanist Congress, the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, and arguably also the Economic Freedom Fighters, all hived off from the ANC as a result of policy or ideological conflicts.
At no time in its history has the ANC been as lacking in unity as it is now. Not a day goes by without some new squabble or scandal emerging. The top leadership is completely split; the National Executive Committee has twice debated a no-confidence motion in the party’s leader; the Secretary-General speaks openly about when it will be easiest to remove President Zuma; and both of its major alliance partners, COSATU and the Communist Party, have called for Mr Zuma to resign. Scores of retired ANC leaders—the veterans and stalwarts—have banded together to demand that Zuma be ‘recalled’ as head of state.
One of Oliver Tambo’s most difficult tasks, and most crucial achievements, during the decades of exile, was to hold the movement together. He had to manage ideological differences and ethnic challenges, and deal with the tensions and frustrations that affect any exiled movement. In addition, he had to allow space for the internal leadership—mostly imprisoned on Robben Island—to play its part. He had to satisfy the varying aspirations of young militants, intellectual theoreticians, African nationalists and international socialists. That there even was an ANC to begin negotiations with the apartheid establishment in the late 1980s was largely due to O.R. Tambo’s skill in maintaining unity. How he must be weeping now.
The second irony is a more personal one. Tambo’s life was one of sacrifice. Although he qualified as a teacher and then as a lawyer, and set up a successful attorney’s practice with Nelson Mandela in the early 1950s, he had always felt drawn to the priesthood in the Anglican Church—but his ANC responsibilities repeatedly got in the way of this calling; indeed, they got in the way of his law practice as well, and in the way of his family life.
In 1960, at the behest of the movement, he went into exile and was not to see South Africa again for 30 years. While his wife Adelaide and their young children were based in London, he spent most of his time in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka—when he was not travelling the world raising awareness and funds for the ANC. He saw his family a few times a year, if that. As for money, the ANC paid no salaries, merely living allowances; not only could he not support his wife and children, he often had to rely on Adelaide to send him clothes and money from her own modest earnings as a nurse. Her sacrifice was, if anything, greater than his.
The contrast between this lifestyle and that of the ANC’s current president, and of many others in its senior ranks, could not be more striking. It is impossible to imagine Oliver Tambo spending millions of rands of anyone’s money, let alone public funds, on his private residence, and it is unthinkable that Tambo would have sold his soul, and that of the movement he served so faithfully, to a bunch of shady businessmen.
Tambo was an exemplary servant leader, one who took charge not for his or her own advancement or glorification, but for the good of those who looked to him or her for direction and guidance. One man who knew the generation of Tambo, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki very well remarked that they had “a quality of leadership … which I am not certain, after that generation, we will ever have again.” True words indeed. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the man who spoke those words is the same man who has done so much to make them come true: Jacob Zuma. Maybe, amid the weeping, Oliver Tambo will allow himself a little smile as well.
The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference
Parliamentary Liaison Officer.