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
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
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

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

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
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?