Oliver Reginald Tambo

Oliver Reginald Tambo (1917-1993) was, as acting president of the African National Congress (ANC), a principal spokesman for the Black African opposition to apartheid in South Africa. He remained active in the ANC, ultimately living to witness the political end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

Born in poverty of peasant parents in Pondoland in 1917, Oliver Reginald Tambo's early education was at St. Peter's School in Johannesburg. He won a scholarship to Fort Hare, the only college Blacks could attend, where he studied science. He was expelled in 1939 for participating in a student strike but later studied law by correspondence and qualified as an attorney in 1952. He and another Black leader, Nelson Mandela, then began a law partnership in Johannesburg.

In the early 1940s Tambo joined the African National Congress, an organization founded in 1912 that opposed white supremacy. Dissatisfied with the ANC's moderation, Tambo, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Anton Lembede helped form the ANC Youth League in 1944. Its activity caused the ANC to adopt more militant tactics. The Defiance Campaign of 1952, involving mass protests and open disobedience of apartheid laws, was the first manifestation of this change. Tambo became secretary-general of the ANC in 1955.


The Gathering Storm

The South African government responded to the Defiance Campaign by "banning" Tambo and other ANC leaders in 1952. Banning is a punishment whose victims may not be quoted and are isolated from other people. In 1956 Tambo and many other anti-apartheid activists of all races were arrested. (At this time, Tambo had taken steps to become an Anglican priest, an aspiration ended by his arrest.) Their treason trial lasted almost five years and resulted in the acquittal of all defendants. Tambo was, however, banned again in 1959.

During the late 1950s several issues threatened the ANC's effectiveness. Inspired by Lembede's "Africanist" philosophy, dissidents challenged the ANC principle, expressed in its Freedom Charter, that South Africa "belongs to all who live in it, " including whites. The Africanists' exclusive racial doctrine was opposed by Tambo, Mandela, and ANC president Albert Luthuli. The dissidents, led by Robert Sobukwe, broke away from the ANC and founded the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959.

Another problem was the role of the South African Communist Party. After much confusion over the huge problem of uniting the white and Black working classes, the Party had come to oppose apartheid, thereby casting its lot with the Blacks. But Tambo, Mandela, and others viewed Communism as alien to Africa and initially opposed Communist membership in the ANC. After much debate, however, the ANC concluded that alliances with all anti-apartheid groups were necessary.

Tambo became deputy president of the ANC in 1958. Because of his dignified, austere, and articulate bearing, he was chosen to represent the ANC overseas. He was therefore out of the country when, after the Sharpeville and Langa shootings in 1960 in which police killed nearly a hundred Blacks, the ANC was banned and its leaders arrested.


Tambo and the ANC in Exile

By 1963 Tambo was the most important ANC leader who remained free. Luthuli was banned and confined to his village in Zululand. Mandela had gone underground and initially escaped arrest, but was captured in 1962, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Sisulu suffered the same fate. When Luthuli was killed by a train in 1967, Mandela became president in his prison cell; Tambo, acting president.

As leader of the exiled ANC, Tambo had to cope with a variety of difficulties. After the Sharpeville shooting, the ANC concluded that peaceful protest against apartheid was futile and that its policy of non-violence must be abandoned. One problem was to attack the government from bases outside the country and to keep those bases secure. Another problem was that of avoiding the "exile condition." Exiled organizations often have their attention diverted by internal squabbling and the problems of daily existence in alien environments. They often lose sight of their reason for existence: to return home and defeat their enemies.

Apparently the ANC did not completely avoid these problems. Under Tambo's leadership it participated in the South African United Front, which also included the PAC and the South African Indian Congress. Internal disputes broke this coalition in 1962. In the late 1960s the ANC helped the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union fight the white settlers of Rhodesia. This move, while it may have provided needed action for ANC guerrilla fighters, caused dissension. Many felt that the goal of liberating South Africa was compromised.

In the 1970s the ANC conducted minor raids into South Africa and occasionally sabotaged government installations or police stations. ANC policy forbade attacks on civilians but proved difficult to enforce because of communications problems. A spontaneous attack on apartheid in 1976 by students in Soweto, the huge Black township near Johannesburg, apparently caught the ANC by surprise. More than 500 Blacks were killed in this uprising.

Tambo continued as ANC acting president in the 1980s. His leadership was solid and diplomatic, and he managed to steer the organization clear of destructive divisions. The ANC maintained prestige among the Black population within South Africa, despite brutal measures by the government to suppress it. It apparently collaborated with the United Democratic Front, a multi-racial anti-apartheid coalition. The Front was banned in 1986 and its leaders arrested.

A major difficulty, which the ANC managed to survive, was the Nkomati Accord, concluded in 1984 between the South African government and Mozambique. South Africa agreed to halt its attempts to destabilize Mozambique in return for Mozambique expelling the ANC. (Mozambique kept its side of the bargain; South Africa did not.) On other occasions South Africa made direct attacks on Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana in efforts to destroy ANC bases. According to Tambo, the loss of external bases in Mozambique helped stimulate the renewed violence inside South Africa that began in 1984.

That violence continued into 1987 and cost well over 2, 000 lives, mostly Black. ANC tactics during this rebellion were to "make the townships ungovernable, " in Tambo's phrase, through attacks on local government officials. The government was able to control some townships only with a massive presence of troops and the free use of firepower. Isolated sabotage of government installations continued.

The 1984 uprising was the most serious attack on apartheid in history. The stature of the ANC rose considerably. Tambo and other representatives had contacts with both a number of Western governments and South African business leaders. An important development was Tambo's meeting with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in early 1987. The ANC approached the status of a government-in-exile, although Tambo maintained that there were other groups that had claims of influence in a post-apartheid South Africa and that Nelson Mandela was the ANC's legitimate leader. When Mandela was released from prison in late 1989, Tambo assumed the post of Chairman of the ANC. Mandela took over the presidency. Tambo died of a stroke on April 24, 1993, at the age of 75, following his eight-hour attendance at the funeral of Chris Hani, murdered a few days earlier.


Further Reading on Oliver Reginald Tambo

There is no biography of Tambo. Much information can be found in Mary Benson, The Struggle for a Birthright (1966) and Nelson Mandela (1986); Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa (1970); and Tom Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (1983). A moderately-comprehensive biographical entry also can be found in Brockman, Norbert C., An African Biographical Dictionary (ABC-CLIO, 1994).