Obituary: Oliver Tambo

Oliver Reginald Tambo, lawyer and politician: born Cape Province 25 October 1917; solicitor Johannesburg 1951-60; Deputy President, African National Congress 1958-67, Acting President 1967- 77, President 1977-91, National Chairman 1991-93; Chancellor, University of Fort Hare 1991-93; married (one son, two daughters); died Johannesburg 24 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.