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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on