The Greatest African Leaders: Oliver Tambo

By Joburg Post

Oliver Reginald Tambo (27 October 1917 – 24 April 1993) was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991. His father was Mzimeni and his mother was called Julia. He was born in the village of Nkantolo in Bizana in eastern Pondoland in what is now Eastern Cape. He attended a school at Holy Cross Mission School, and then transferred to St. Peters in Johannesburg. 

Tambo matriculated in 1938 as one of the top students, and he was qualified for a University degree at the University of Fort Hare. In 1940 he, along with several others including Nelson Mandela, was expelled from Fort Hare University for participating in a student strike. In 1942 Tambo returned to his former high school in Johannesburg to teach science and mathematics. 

Political achievements
Tambo, along with Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were the founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1943, becoming its first National Secretary and a member of the National Executive in 1948. In 1955, Tambo became Secretary General of the ANC after Walter Sisulu was banned by the South African government under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1958 he became Deputy President of the ANC and in 1959 was served with a five-year banning order by the government. In response, Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mobilise opposition to apartheid. He settled with his family in Muswell Hill, north London, where he lived until 1990. He was involved in the formation of the South African Democratic Front. In 1967, Tambo became Acting President of the ANC, following the death of Chief Albert Lutuli, then National Chairperson until his death, in 1993. 

Oliver Reginald Tambo, leader of the African National Congress in exile for thirty years, died on 23 April 1993. Yet his legacy lives on. He left a significant and enduring heritage, one, which enhanced our new constitution, contributed to the inclusive and equitable policies of democratically elected government in South Africa, and affirmed the abiding vision of the ANC itself. While the ANC has consistently produced leaders of the highest calibre, Oliver Tambo, thoughtful, wise and warm-hearted, was perhaps the most loved. For example his simplicity, his nurturing style, his genuine respect for all people seemed bring out the best in them. His life was remarkable for the profound influence he had on the ANC during the difficult years of uncertainty, loneliness and homesickness in exile. During his fifty years of political activity in the ANC, He affectionately came to be known, played a significant role in every key moment in the history of the movement, until his death. 

One can ask, what shaped the life of Oliver Tambo, and what values and life skills enabled him to make such an important and enduring impact on the history of the ANC and democracy in South Africa? The answer can be found in the two major processes that defined his early life: “his traditional rural roots; and the expertise he acquired through education”. This moulded his style in politics and leadership, and each experience was very different; yet he combined them creatively to develop an approach, which was able to reach and empower a broad mass of the people, both nationally and internationally. 


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