Statesman extraordinaire: remembering Oliver Tambo

Photo © Sue Kramer/ AfricaMediaOnline

Oliver Reginald Tambo was the face of the ANC in exile.

Tasked with setting up an external mission as the ANC went underground, he became the chief diplomat of the ANC abroad. He carried the message of the ANC’s vision to distant shores and mobilised support. The new buildings of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation on the other side of Meintjieskop in Tshwane are thus fittingly named after this liberation diplomat.

In her magisterial biography Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Ngele Mountains Luli Callinicos emphasises the central role that Tambo played in developing “a diplomatic strategy that isolated the apartheid regime” and embracing “an inclusive, non-racial project” inside South Africa and in exile. He also “consciously instilled in a generation of young people a love of intellectual enquiry and professional excellence, to be placed in the service of a future, free and democratic South Africa”.

He was a “reluctant leader, content to commit ‘quiet acts of unrecorded heroism’”. A deeply religious, principled man, he lacked vanity and had no thought of personal gain. Callinicos writes that the principle of Ubuntu permeated both his beliefs and his everyday life.

Tambo died on 23 April 1993, a year before South Africa’s first democratic election: the struggle for which had dominated his life. At his funeral, soon-to-be president Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Tambo – “a great giant, who strode the globe like a colossus … A mind whose thoughts have opened the doors to our liberty… A heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised…”

Over the course of 2017, the centenary of Oliver Tambo’s birth, many have highlighted his leadership and values as our country goes through one of the most difficult periods of our post-1994 history. In that sense the centenary of his birth should act as a clarion call to reaffirm in practice the values that South Africa’s democratic constitution espouses, and to remind our political leaders that they are stewards, not owners, of our country’s wealth, and that political office is service to the people not personal enrichment.

˜ Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive

Our Youth@SAIIA team recently partnered with the City of Ekurhuleni to help run the 2017 OR Tambo Children’s Negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals – a way of honouring the diplomatic values that Tambo upheld. The event ran from 20 to 24 October and drew 88 learners, aged 11 to 14, from Gauteng and the Eastern Cape in South Africa as well as Lusaka in Zambia.

During negotiations participants grappled with critical global issues like food insecurity, climate change, rising unemployment and HIV/Aids, among others, and called for change. Read their declaration.