Adelaide Tambo

'Ma Tambo' to the ANC in exile and a champion of women, the elderly and disabled in South Africa


Adelaide Frances Tshukudu, nurse and political activist: born Top Location, South Africa 18 July 1929; married 1956 Oliver Tambo (died 1993; one son, two daughters); died Johannesburg 31 January 2007.

The President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, is the only head of state in the world to have a "presidential adviser on disabled people's rights" at Union Buildings in Pretoria. If that office is there, it is thanks to the influence of Adelaide Tambo.

"Ma Tambo" was the wife of the late Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress in exile. She put her three children through public school by working 20-hour shifts in NHS hospitals. She elevated the vocations of "wife" and "mother", and her influence on the ANC in exile provided a touch of pulchritude that saved it - once in government - from becoming totally dominated by the ambitions of macho ex-guerrillas.

Last August in Pretoria, in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of a landmark anti-apartheid march by women, Adelaide Tambo made an impassioned plea to young, ambitious South Africans for kindness. "Life made me meek and sick," she said:

Although my mind is strong, many may become abusive towards me because I cannot provide the American dream. I am 77 years old. The majority of women in this country are my children. Why are you not fighting for me?

The daughter of Petrous Tshukudu, an evangelical preacher, and Adelina, a domestic worker, Adelaide had her first taste of the injustices of apartheid when she was 10 years old. Her 82-year-old grandfather had become caught up in a riot in which a police officer had been killed. He collapsed and, while she waited for him to regain consciousness, she heard the white police officers insult the old man, calling him "boy".

Five years later, she began working for the ANC as a courier. She joined the ANC Youth League and, at the age of 18, was its chairwoman. She met Oliver Tambo at the launch of a new youth league branch. He proposed when she was a student nurse at Pretoria hospital and they married in 1956.

Their wedding was a true "struggle" event - three weeks before it took place, Oliver Tambo had been arrested and charged with high treason, along with 155 other ANC members, including the partner in his law firm, Nelson Mandela. The wedding went ahead four days after the "Rivonia trialists" were released on bail. But, on the way to the church, the bride, groom and best man were briefly arrested for violating the pass laws, and bundled into a police van. There was no honeymoon. After the wedding, it was back to court. The Rivonia trial lasted for more than three years, ending with the acquittal of all the accused.

In 1960, after demonstrators against the pass laws were massacred in Sharpeville and the ANC was banned, the Tambos fled South Africa. Adelaide was told by the ANC to go to London, whereas Oliver, as ANC President, was ordered to settle in Zambia. For most of the next 30 years the couple were separated.

The years in London were painfully tough. The apartheid regime had its eye on her and the children, Tembi, Dali and Tselane. After an attempted break-in, assumed to have been carried out by the South African secret services, Adelaide sent the children away to boarding school and worked long hospital shifts to pay their fees. Later, after a back injury, she trained to become a geriatric nurse and ran a north London home for the elderly. She saw Oliver no more than twice or three times a year.

The couple returned to South Africa in 1990 but Oliver died of a stroke in 1993 - a year before the country's first all-race democratic elections, which brought Mandela - with whom Adelaide shared her birthday of 18 July - to power. Adelaide Tambo became an MP.

Her passions - for women's rights and the dignity of disabled and elderly people - were reflected in tributes paid yesterday. The ANC described Tambo as "a true heroine of our nation, a daughter of our soil who dedicated her life to the freedom of our people". One hopes the mealy-mouthed tribute from President Mbeki - for whom Adelaide was a second mother throughout the exile years - was the result of speechlessness through grief. He said: "Her passing away amounts to a loss to the entire country and the international community."

In 2002, Adelaide Tambo received South Africa's top decoration - the Order of the Baobab in Gold - and was present at a ceremony last October to rename Johannesburg airport the O.R. Tambo International Airport, in honour of her late husband. In the 1990s, the Anglican Church in South Africa appointed her to the Order of Simon of Cyrene, the highest honour it can bestow on a lay person.

Alex Duval Smith

The political trial during which the Tambos were married in 1956 was not the Rivonia trial, as stated in your obituary of Adelaide Tambo, writes Paul Trewhela. Rather, it was the "Treason Trial", which resulted, as Alex Duval Smith writes, in the acquittal of all 156 accused.

The Rivonia trial of 1963-64 was the trial in which Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and others were sentenced to life imprisonment, having faced the possibility of the death sentence. The name comes from the Johannesburg suburb where the secret headquarters of the military wing of the banned African National Congress and the banned South African Communist Party was located. The life sentences and the possibility of the gallows arose because the ANC and the SACP had taken up violent resistance to the state, though at that stage still in the form only of sabotage of installations, following the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960.

At the time of the inception of the Treason Trial and the wedding of Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, the ANC (though not the SACP) remained a legal organisation, and one still committed to a policy of non-violence. The massacre at Sharpeville changed all that.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
people

Far-right organisation has defended its actions on Facebook

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

Science Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

Cover Supervisor

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker