Obituary: Oliver Tambo
Monday 26 April 1993
OLIVER TAMBO, the President of the African National Congress over three decades, was probably the most influential black South African leader of his time - but from an extraordinary position. He was in exile for almost the whole of his presidency, and his statements could not be published inside his home country.
His personal style was much more like a priest's or a scholar's than a politician's. He was a devout Anglican who nearly went into the church. With his slow walk, his grey sidewhiskers and his long silences and 'aaaahs', 'the Old Man' (as his colleagues called him) often appeared very aloof from the political fray.
But his faith and firm principles helped to give him a unique moral authority as a leader, and the ability to view setbacks in a long perspective. And he was in fact a shrewd politician and diplomat, who could hold rival factions together through patient conciliation and purpose.
Tambo's world reputation was eclipsed by that of his lifelong friend and colleague Nelson Mandela. But he was always the indispensable partner to Mandela, in and out of jail: and his leadership had been more thoroughly tested by the time Mandela was released from detention in February 1990.
Tambo and Mandela, men of the same age, both came from the Transkei region of South Africa which was the rural heartland of the Xhosa people. While Mandela came from a royal family Tambo was a peasant's son, with a more introverted and reflective style than Mandela's. They were together at Fort Hare, then the only black university college in South Africa, and in 1944 they both became founder-members of the Youth League which injected new radicalism and urgency into the then passive African National Congress.
Tambo became a mathematics teacher at St Peter's, Rosettenville, the prestigious mission school outside Johannesburg which was then run by the Rev Trevor Huddleston - whose inspiration greatly influenced him, and who remained his lifelong friend.
But Tambo like Mandela turned to law as the most effective means of working for black rights. Together they set up the firm of Mandela and Tambo in a small office in central Johannesburg which became a focus for black grievances and political discussion in the early Fifties. As a lawyer Tambo came up against the full ruthlessness of apartheid legislation; but he acquired a respect for the principles and primacy of the law which always remained with him. At that time (when I first met them there) they were both more reserved and serious-minded than most of their political colleagues, and cautious of white contacts.
As apartheid was tightened, Tambo was inevitably drawn into the front line of politics - through the defiance campaign of 1952, the Freedom Charter and the Treason Trial of 1958 and the Sharpeville crisis of 1960, after which he was involved in the crucial talks which led the ANC to abandon passive resistance in favour of the armed struggle.
When the ANC was banned in 1960, its President, Chief Albert Luthuli, had already chosen Tambo to lead the ANC in exile - Tambo escaped to London and then Tanzania in the same year - while Mandela remained inside and was eventually captured, convicted of sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Tambo thus found himself with the lonely responsibility of leading a banished movement which was now committed to military action, and urgently needed foreign friends, without contact with his colleagues in jail.
He first looked to Britain and the United States for support, in vain. He raised some funds from Scandinavia and Holland; but he received his main support from the Soviet Union and East Germany, who thereafter provided funds, training and weapons free of charge. The ANC thus inevitably looked eastward and acquired some more Communist influences and friends. But the 'Moscow conspiracy' was always much exaggerated by Pretoria and its allies. After a visit to Moscow in the mid-Eighties Tambo told me that the Russians had for the first time made a comment about ANC policy; suggesting that the Freedom Charter put too much emphasis on nationalisation.
Tambo himself was privately convinced that black South Africans would never choose Communism; and he continued to look westward, and particularly towards Britain, which he saw as critically responsible for the nation which it had created and financed. He also looked to Britain's moral authority as the defender of the world against Nazism - which he always saw as closely linked to the racism and evils of apartheid.
His early hopes that Western powers would apply sanctions were dashed, and through the Sixties and Seventies Tambo had to rely on fitful ANC guerrilla bands to maintain some opposition to apartheid governments which were becoming increasingly ruthless. But from his exile in Zambia Tambo still maintained close links with blacks inside South Africa. The revolt in Soweto in 1976 was primarily inspired by the 'black consciousness' movement set up by Steve Biko, which was much more purely black than the ANC. But when thousands of refugees streamed northwards, Tambo was very skilful in welcoming them into the multiracial ranks of the ANC.
In the early Eighties Tambo began to achieve more success with Western support, particularly in the US; but it was not until the revolt of 1984-85 that he at last saw the beginnings of sanctions for which he had long hoped. In both the US and Britain he now had a more sympathetic hearing from politicians, bankers and businessmen, who were worried they might be caught on the wrong side. By 1985 the big Western banks felt compelled by pressure from campaigners to stop lending to Pretoria - a shift which provided the most effective sanctions to date.
Tambo was also beginning to be received by conservative politicians, including George Shultz in Washington and Sir Geoffrey Howe in London, and by Afrikaner leaders from South Africa. He could be remarkably forgiving to those who had supported apartheid, and could even sympathise with President Botha's problems. But he was increasingly distressed and bewildered by the determination of Margaret Thatcher to brand the ANC as terrorists without criticising Pretoria's violence - which he saw as giving Botha much-needed respect.
He looked to Britain to help to avert the bloodshed which would follow from a civil war, and looked to the law rather than the gun. But he saw Mrs Thatcher as standing in the way of Britain's opportunity to mediate and provide constructive pressure. When I last saw him, in June 1989, he had only one message: 'She must talk to us.'
Tambo returned to South Africa in December 1990, 10 months after the unbanning of the ANC and Mandela's release from detention. Tambo had not been fully fit since suffering a stroke in 1989, and Mandela succeeded him as President of the ANC in July 1991, although Tambo was still working three days a week in the ANC offices at the time of his death.
Tambo's style was in total contrast to any picture of a terrorist leader: gentle, avuncular, with great warmth of friendship expressed in long hugs and finger-holding, African style. When meeting someone who interested him he liked to look them slowly up and down, to size them up. He travelled constantly, defying his doctor's pleas and disliking the constraints of security; but when in London he was often immersed in family life, with his wife Adelaide and their children in their house in Muswell Hill.
His informality and apparent vagueness made some Westerners sceptical of the strength of his leadership; but his colleagues treated the 'old man' with visible awe. Like some other black leaders, including Martin Luther King, his influence had a strong moral element; and his name was chanted in the townships, alongside Mandela's, as symbols of their people's aspirations and confidence.
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