Obituary: Oliver Tambo
Monday 26 April 1993
IF THERE is one individual responsible for getting the African National Congress where it is today it is Oliver Tambo, writes Richard Dowden.
One should not belittle the sacrifice of Nelson Mandela or any of the others who went to prison for nearly 30 years, but it was Tambo who had the depressing and tricky task of holding a movement together when it had little more than its own rhetoric to feed on. He spent years traipsing around the world encouraging the ANC exiles and drumming up support for what at times must have felt like a lost cause. Nelson Mandela gave instant recognition to that achievement when he left prison in 1990 and, after a very emotional reunion with his old friend and colleague in Stockholm, insisted that he remain the head of the ANC. No one else in the ANC could have kept the ANC together through the long depressing years of the 1970s and 1980s.
Tambo had a simple quiet charm and was a good listener - he would always ask for other peoples' opinions, even from journalists who interviewed him. He was not a great orator. He had a slow, almost ecclesiastically solemn delivery, especially when his text was the rhetorical speech about struggle and victory which an exiled movement is forced to repeat endlessly. But in conversation he used real words, gave real answers and spoke personally to everyone he met. Unfailingly courteous, he never forget names. I once interviewed him soon after the late Chris Hani had warned that whites would be attacked by ANC fighters. Tambo listened carefully and then explained that this was not ANC policy. It was not a perfunctory political denial, he seemed to be trying to convince me personally that this was the case.
The ANC in exile was beset with difficulties and riven with disputes. For all its rhetoric the armed struggle was going nowhere. The young who fled from the townships after the 1975 uprising wanted to go back and fight but instead found themselves in camps in rural Africa where they were frequently ill cared for and rarely given a purpose. There were rebellions and recriminations. The ANC tried to find South African agents provocateurs and spies, and many innocent people were tortured and some executed. Tambo was nominally the head of the ANC at this time and must therefore be ultimately responsible but the victims never blamed him for these incidents and he was seen as an ally of those who were trying to prevent them.
Tambo would have been well placed to lead the movement through the difficult moment when the ANC's Communist allies were falling but the movement itself was finally being invited to the centre stage. It was at this moment in 1989 that Tambo had his stroke.
It was a bad blow for the ANC and from then on, although his distinctive heavy black-framed spectacles and greying sideburns were seen at ANC events, he played no direct role in formulating policy in the movement. Indirectly, however, his spirit of patient deliberation and sincerity left a profound impression on the ANC which his death will diminish.
Fracking is turning the US into a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia
Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Details emerge of two young Iranians using stolen passports in search for a better life
Three-quarters of Britons are saying it wrong - the top ten most common mispronunciations
Oscar Pistorius trial: Forensic analyst says athlete 'was not wearing prosthetic legs' when he smashed locked toilet door with a bat
Missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370: ‘Alright, good night’ – last words from cockpit revealed amid growing confusion
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Katie Hopkins continues campaign to become Britain's most hated talking head with poorly timed Bob Crow tweet
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
No EU referendum under Labour: Ed Miliband to reveal that vote on membership is ‘unlikely’ in next Parliament if party wins power
Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
- 1 Hells of residence: Inside Macedonia's horrifying student accommodation - where the walls are green and the food is black
- 2 First Kiss video: Filmmaker gets 20 strangers to make out on YouTube with awkward results
- 3 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 4 Rampaging elephant smashes up house but then 'saves crying baby trapped under debris'
- 5 Ian Wright breaks down in ITV documentary charting his rise to Arsenal and England striker