President address at the commemoration of OR Tambo

Programme Director, Cllr Patricia Khumalo,
Members of the Tambo and Tshukudu family,
Congresswoman Maxine Waters,
Premier of Gauteng, David Makhura,
Executive Mayor of Ekurhuleni, Cllr Mzwandile Masina, 
Isitwalandwe Mama Sophie de Bruyn
Leadership of the ANC, SACP, COSATU and SANCO,
Leaders of the leagues of our organisations,
Religious and Traditional Leaders,
Our honourable guests,
Comrades and friends,
Fellow South Africans,

Had he been with us today, President Oliver Reginald Tambo would be turning 102 years old.

We continue to celebrate his birthday although he is no longer with us in honour of the unparalleled contribution he made in the struggle to liberate the oppressed people of our country.

We continue to celebrate his life in acknowledgement of the fact that it is he who guided our society towards the constitutional democratic order we enjoy today.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo was born on this day in 1917 in Kantolo, Bizana, in the then Pondoland in the Eastern Cape.

He was born at a time when the settlers of European descent were firmly consolidating their grip on power in our land.

Having recently formed the Union of South Africa, the English and the Afrikaner found common cause in the exclusion of the black majority.

The Natives Land Act legalised centuries of steady, systematic and violent dispossession of African people of their land and their wealth. 

The South Africa into which OR Tambo was born was characterised by the supremacy of white people politically, economically and socially.

This supremacy was anchored on conditions of poverty and underdevelopment for the black majority in general and Africans in particular.

It is important to know the context in which OR Tambo grew up if we are to understand what shaped his political thinking and action.

Had he lived, OR Tambo would have taken great satisfaction in the knowledge that the ANC’s 54th National Conference – which took place in the year of his centenary and which was dedicated to his memory – firmly put this country on the path of fundamental and radical socio-economic transformation which aims to resolve once and for all the historical injustice meted out against the black majority.

Although he had not received any formal education himself, his father, Mzimeni, impressed on the young Tambo the need to be educated as the best and perhaps only way to decisively break from the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment into which he was born.

The young OR took his father’s counsel seriously and vowed to strive in the classroom to better himself and the conditions of his parents.

Ever hard- working and focused, OR Tambo was able to strike a balance between the demands of his school work and the homestead duties expected of every normal village boy, including ploughing the field and herding livestock.

He performed all the tasks given to him with diligence and excelled at school.

Young people must draw inspiration from the life of the young OR Tambo and use to the fullest all the educational opportunities provided to them by the democratic government. 

Academic excellence should be the goal driving the activities of every young person of school-going age, just as the goal driving government is to ensure all young people have equal access to quality education and the opportunity to reach their full potential.

On this score, I wish to encourage the matric class of 2019, who are busy with their final exams, to apply themselves with even greater effort in the weeks remaining of this school year.

Having been a teacher himself, OR Tambo would have wanted us to acknowledge and appreciate all the hard working teachers who spare neither effort nor strength in ensuring that our matriculants are prepared for their exams.

To these teachers we say thank you, well done and please continue your great service to our country.

One of the things that must be said about Oliver Tambo is that he was a devout Christian.

He accepted Christianity at a tender age at the Holy Cross Missionary School and became a dedicated member of the Anglican Church, where he served as an altar boy.

I am reflecting on this aspect of his life because his strong Christian beliefs helped to spare him from many misdemeanours usually associated with young men, then and now.

There is an important lesson to draw here: that young people must seek a set of beliefs and perspectives on morality to successfully deal with, among other things, the scourge of alcohol, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviour and violence.

Faith based communities have an important role to play as part of our broader moral regeneration efforts.

The story of OR Tambo is like a book full of timeless life lessons to all who wish to become better people in service of humanity.

From an early age, OR Tambo never sought high office.

However, his lack of appetite for leadership positions should not be confused with the lack of confidence to lead.

Tambo persuaded his peers with ease and great sophistication.

As a very patient listener and good debater, he always provided leadership in critical moments within and through a collective.

OR Tambo went to further his studies at the University of Fort Hare, which in times of despair in our country carried in its hands the hopes, dreams and aspirations of young black men and women.

With a sharpened sense of justice from his lived experience, he was immersed in student struggles seeking always to defend and advance the interests of students.

Despite his activism and involvement in student politics, OR Tambo continued to excel academically. 

This is a great lesson for our present day student leaders.

While we appreciate the role they are playing in defending and advancing student interests and in creating a conscious citizenry, Tambo would have expected of them to see it as their revolutionary duty to excel academically, graduate on time and create space for others.

On this score, let me congratulate all those involved in student politics who are leading by example and obtaining their qualifications.

Having heard for the first time about the ANC while he was still a student at St Peter’s Secondary School in Johannesburg, it was only when he returned to the same school as a teacher that OR Tambo came to fully appreciate the necessity of a strong and effective movement in the fight against the oppression and exploitation.

Together with other young intellectuals such as Dr Mxolisi Majombozi, Congress Mbatha, AP Mda, Walter Sisulu, Dr William F Nkomo, Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela and others, they founded the ANC Youth League in 1944.

Their goal was to infuse new and militant ideas into the ANC to propel it onto a qualitatively different plane of struggle.

This was a very special generation of young people and Oliver Tambo was elected as the first National Secretary of the League, alongside Anton Lembede who was elected President.

True to his character, OR Tambo executed the tasks of his office with diligence and worked tirelessly to establish a Youth League presence in all the then four provinces.

Radical yet polite, and militant yet respectful, Tambo’s dynamism immensely benefited the Youth League when negotiating its way with a rather conservative old guard of the African National Congress.

Owing to his leadership capabilities, OR Tambo rose through the ranks of the ANC acting as Secretary General when Walter Sisulu was under banning orders and ultimately becoming Deputy President to Chief Albert Luthuli.

It was not surprising therefore that after the tragic death of Chief Luthuli in 1967, and with most of his contemporaries imprisoned on Robben Island, there was no one more qualified and fit for the position of President than him.

At this time he was already in exile, having been sent by his movement in 1960 to establish the external mission of the ANC and galvanise international support for our struggle against a murderous minority regime.

The ANC sent him out of the country at a time when he had just gotten married to Mama Adelaide Tambo and was enjoying a successful career at Mandela & Tambo Attorneys.

We pay tribute to Mama Adelaide Tambo who – as a revolutionary in her own right – understood and was prepared to pay the personal cost at which national freedom would be achieved.

We salute her as one of the many heroines of our struggle who carried not only the burden of our liberation but the care of their own family.

We remember her steely determination in the face of hardship and risk to contribute everything within her being to the liberation of South Africa.

When the instruction came, both Oliver and Adelaide Tambo accepted the absolute necessity of leaving their home and undertaking a mission into territory unknown and for a period that was uncertain. 

They accepted the will of their movement believing always that they were acting in the best interests of the oppressed black majority.

This is the type of self-sacrifice that defined the characters of both Oliver and Adelaide Tambo.

It is this selflessness that made them the embodiment of what the ANC’s Strategy & Tactics document envisages of all cadres of the movement, when it says:

“Wherever they are to be found, ANC cadres should act as the custodians of the principles of fundamental social change; winning respect among their peers and society at large through exemplary conduct. They must be informed by values of honesty, hard work, humility, service to the people and respect for the laws of the land.”

President OR Tambo was, for the better part of his adult life, the chief custodian of the principles of fundamental social change.

He won the respect of his peers and the world at large through exemplary conduct.

He was a repository of the best values and principles upon which our democratic society was founded and sustained.

He truly understood and represented the deep aspirations of the masses of our people.

He reached out to the peoples of the world, forging one of the most powerful global movements to confront and to end the perpetration of a crime against humanity.

He sought international solidarity not only for the struggling masses of South Africa, but for all colonised, oppressed and exploited people across the world.

It is therefore a matter of great joy that we are joined today by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an unwavering champion of the cause of the South African people and the cause of global justice.

We welcome you and thank you for your presence.

We are gathered here today, in a free and democratic South Africa, thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Oliver Reginald Tambo.

Let us work together to ensure that OR Tambo continues to live through our conduct and through our service to the people of South Africa, Africa and the world.
I thank you.