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.

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