AS ITS longest-serving president, Oliver Tambo’s name is inextricably linked to the African National Congress (ANC). He was called upon to lead during the movement’s most difficult years. He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League, a galaxy of young men and women who transformed the ANC into the organiser and leader of a mass movement that shook the pillars of white domination in wave after wave of mass struggle during the 1950s. It devolved on Tambo’s generation to take all the strategic decisions that shaped the movement over the next four decades.
They piloted the Programme of Action through the branches until it reached the ANC conference floor and was adopted as policy in 1949. They led the Defiance Campaign that made Nelson Mandela a national figure as volunteer-in-chief in 1952. When the ANC was banned in 1960, they took the decision to go underground, and they took the decision to create Umkhonto weSizwe and launch the armed struggle. When the political climate was auspicious, it was again they who led in the decision to seek a negotiated settlement.
The ANC was fortunate that it was to Tambo to whom the responsibility of leading the movement inside South Africa and in the rest of the world was entrusted after the death of Albert Luthuli. Tambo’s achievement is analogous to repairing a battered skorokoro while driving it to its destination through heavy traffic. Tambo went into exile the day that the statute banning the ANC had its first reading in Parliament. His assignment was establishing an external mission to mobilise support for the struggle of our people.
Tambo’s mission was radically redefined by the Rivonia raid in July 1963. With the underground liberation movement virtually closed down inside South Africa, it was Tambo who reassembled its scattered remains, united them with the movement’s forces outside South Africa and moulded an instrument capable of galvanising our people into action.
Tough, hard-nosed realism was one of his leadership skills. He understood that the oppressed people were not an uncomplicated, homogenous mass but represented a plurality of interests and aspirations that could be harnessed around the shared objective of emancipation. Giving leadership to such a diverse constituency required tactical flexibility and strategic vision that recognised the need to manage the contradictions.
Tambo will continue to confound observers because he preferred nurturing a culture of collective leadership and cultivated an environment in which the president is first among equals within the ANC: the first among equals whose respect he had earned, enjoyed and maintained by virtue of the quality his leadership. A legacy to be nurtured.
Under Tambo, the ANC did not shirk the challenge of earnest introspection, self-criticism and grasping the nettle of corrective action when necessary. Terrible mistakes and ugly deeds were committed during the struggle. The ANC retraced its footsteps and evaluated its own weaknesses and mistakes as a precondition for enhancing its strengths. It was a readiness to do this at Morogoro in 1969, and again at Kabwe in 1985, that gave it the ability to reconstruct itself to become the organising centre of resistance.
Its principal task was knitting together a broad front of opposition to apartheid inside South Africa while rebuilding an effective underground capable of sustaining a secret army in the shape of Umkhonto weSizwe.
An equally broad front of people was built to isolate the apartheid regime in the world community and hasten its defeat. It inspired thousands of acts of solidarity and support, in actions that ranged from individual consumers boycotting Outspan oranges at a European market to mass demonstrations to stop Springbok rugby tours. It culminated in voters in the West compelling their governments to impose sanctions.
Tambo was respected by his peers among the leaders of the continent. He won the respect of the movement’s allies and supporters internationally by his insistence on the quality of the movement he led and the quality of its actions and pronouncements.
It is testament to the leadership collective he assembled that, at a historic moment, when the prospects of the movement were changing decisively for the better, we did not witness an obscene scramble for power. Instead, a smooth transition was executed from Tambo’s presidency to Nelson Mandela’s after he was disabled by a stroke.
When he left South Africa in 1960, the ANC instructed Tambo to build an international solidarity movement. The size, scope and diversity of the solidarity movement at its peak during the 1980s attests to his success.
The ANC is marking Tambo’s birthday on Sunday with an international conference bringing together the principal actors in that solidarity movement — a fitting tribute to an outstanding president.
• Jordan is a former minister of arts and culture.
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