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Author : Jacob Zuma

Centenary Lecture delivered by His Excellency, President of the African National Congress, Comrade Jacob Zuma on the legacy of President Oliver Reginald Tambo, University of Pretoria, Tshwane

26 October 2012

Deputy President of the ANC and all ANC Officials,
Former President Chissano and all Former Heads of State and Government,
Members of the National Executive Committee,
Gauteng Chairperson, Comrade Paul Mashatile and the Gauteng PEC,
Leadership of the Tripartite Alliance;
The Tambo Family;
Esteemed recipients and nominees of the Order of Companions of OR Tambo
Our Esteemed International Guests;
Members of the diplomatic corps,
Comrades and friends,

It is with utmost humility and respect that I stand here to deliver Comrade President OR Tambo memorial lecture during the 3rd International Solidarity Conference.

If this colossus we are honouring was with us today, he would have been delighted to see that the International Solidarity Conference is being hosted in Pretoria in the city of Tshwane, which used to be the citadel of white supremacy.

In his opening address to the 2nd International Solidarity Conference, which took place in the city of Johannesburg in 1993, Comrade OR stated;

"We meet in the land of apartheid to discuss what next we should do finally to end apartheid. It would perhaps have been right for us to meet in Pretoria, firmly to make the point that soon the country will be under new management".

Indeed, the new management hereby extends a warm welcome to all our friends and comrades from around the world who have joined us for the solidarity conference.

It is often said of the first President of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah that he is a reminder, not of what Africa is, but of what Africa should become.

In the same vein, President Tambo remains a symbol of what a free and democratic South Africa should be like through his legacy of selflessness, humility and supreme love for this country and its people.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo was, still is and will always be the pride of the ANC. That is why we are gathered here this morning to reflect on his legacy.

President Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in Mbizana, in eastern Mpondoland in what was then the Cape Province. He would be turning 95 years old on his birthday tomorrow, had we been graced with a few more years of his life.

He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1944, and became its first National Secretary.

Together with Comrades Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, Dr William Nkomo, Dr C.M. Majombozi and others - they were instrumental in the transformation of the ANC.

They infused the organisation with new ideas and changed it to become a progressive and potent tool in the hands of our people in the struggle for liberation.     

President Tambo bears the distinction of having been the longest serving President of the ANC. When Chief Luthuli died, he became acting President for a long period of time until he was formally elected to the position by the NEC at the time.

He led the organisation during one of the most difficult and trying moments of the liberation struggle.

The ANC had been banned and had gone underground. As the Deputy President he had been asked to go and establish the external mission of the ANC, which had declared the armed struggle in 1961. MK cadres had to be trained in different countries and after training they had to come back into the country to perform sabotage actions against military installations.

The enemy dealt a heavy blow to our movement in 1963. Its core leaders were arrested and later sentenced to life imprisonment, among them the Rivonia Trialists.

The then President-General, Chief Albert Luthuli, was confined to Groutville in KZN under terrible restrictions and banning orders.

Provincial leadership as well as regional and small units of MK and underground structures were also dealt a heavy blow through detentions.

Things had to change. The external mission had to become the main centre of the movement. And indeed, that happened.

President Tambo became the glue that held the many facets of the ANC together during that difficult period. If the ANC is a broad church, President Tambo became a capable pastor to all the strands.

And how was this possible? What exactly does Tambo represent to us?

It is both difficult and impossible to capture the essence of such a life as that of President Tambo in any number of words and conceptualization.

However, some of the attributes that immediately come to mind when one thinks of President Tambo are the following:

  • discipline in thought and in action.
  • Highly principled.
  • nationalism and internationalism.
  • non-racialism and non-sexism.
  • dedication to the freedom of all.
  • Fearlessness and foresight.
  • Humble servant, empowering leader and democrat.
  • integrity
  • persuader and diplomat par excellence
  • Pioneer - from the youth league to the mission in exile
  • the ability to give and also take advice and draw strength from others.
  • a dedicated husband to Mama Adelaide and a good father to the children.

These qualities were demonstrated in various ways as he built the movement and its cadres, thus contributing to some of its tried and tested traditions and character.

It is more from him that we learned to operate as a collective. The discipline of the collective remains a fundamental trait of disciplined cadres of the ANC.

It was also under his leadership that the ANC developed a culture of taking its decisions through consensus.

He was an also exceptionally good listener. Many of those who worked with him in exile can attest to this notion that OR had a capacity to listen to all points of views before he could take any critical decision.

Hence the meetings of the National Executive Committee ran for a week.

He also believed passionately in building leadership and capacity within the ANC. Many of those who became leaders of the ANC in the post-liberation period were personally groomed and developed by him.

It was his leadership style as well that made a success of the consultative Morogoro Conference of 1969, which symbolised the ANC`s ability to transcend divisive tendencies.

The conference also symbolised the triumph of non-racialism as the key principle of the organisation and the Alliance.

It was also Tambo`s force of example which calmed tempers in the camps when disputes about basic necessities, discontent with some leaders and ill-advised eagerness to go back to South Africa to fight surfaced.

The leadership that he provided to Umkhonto Wesizwe as commander in chief of the people`s army was inspiring to many young freedom fighters.

In early 1967, when the Revolutionary Council decided on the first military campaign to South Africa, the Wankie Campaign, Oliver Tambo accompanied the fighters right down to the Zambian bank of the Zambezi River, accompanied by Thomas Nkobi.1

This gesture demonstrated support and more profoundly that he was one of them.

At every stage of our Movement, his hand could be detected.

Throughout all the critical decades from the 60s, 70s, 80s to our return home in 1990, President Tambo worked tirelessly in the pursuit of freedom.

On 8 January 1985, he delivered his most dramatic speech calling on people to ‘Render South Africa Ungovernable`, following the July 1985 State of Emergency.

When the time came to engage the enemy, in President Tambo we were fortunate to have a leader who was able to chart the way forward towards a negotiated settlement.

At that time, many were still finding it difficult to accept that there would be no dramatic seizure of power.

He understood at the time that the apartheid regime was irreversibly cornered by the forces of liberation led by the ANC.

He had come to know this through his own political work and various reports he had received - from political, military, economic to intelligence - that the time was right for such an engagement.

A process had been unfolding under his direction of engaging the Afrikaner intelligentsia.

Comrade Thabo Mbeki played an important role in this engagement process.

From the time he sent former President Mbeki and I to initiate a dialogue with the oppressors to the onset of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, President Tambo`s leadership and counsel were invaluable.

From the release of President Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, the unbanning of political organisations to the watershed first democratic elections in 1994, President Tambo provided leadership.

He also led us capably in key processes from the Harare Declaration to the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

The people of South Africa are indeed highly indebted to President Oliver Reginald Tambo.

Today South Africa is a new nation, a united people founded on the fundamental principles of human dignity, democracy and equal rights for all.

We promote non-racialism and unity against the background that apart from President Mandela and President-General Luthuli, President Tambo remains the greatest symbol of our reconciliation policies.

He saw one people united in the quest of a free South Africa.

We should note as well that President Tambo was very mindful of the rights of women. He commissioned a Code of Conduct that saw that women`s rights are respected and upheld by all in the organisation. He tried to ensure that the abuse of women was eradicated.

Comrades and friends,

A key bequest from President Tambo to the South African nation was his internationalism.

He convinced the peoples of the world, through the United Nations and other platforms that apartheid was an affront to all freedom loving nations, that it was indeed a crime against humanity.

Assisted by African governments, President Tambo was able to establish ANC missions in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and in London.

From these small beginnings, under his stewardship the ANC acquired missions in a total of 27 countries by 1990. The fact that the United Nations declared apartheid a crime against humanity, is mainly a result of his tireless diplomatic work.

The international campaign to release President Mandela and other political prisoners, the campaign for sanctions against apartheid South Africa and the creation of an understanding of South Africa under apartheid, were all skilfully executed under his leadership.

Remarkably, by August 1982 a total of 2,000 mayors in 53 countries worldwide had signed a petition for President Mandela`s release.

More importantly, President Tambo commanded the respect of all leaders in the world. When he took the platform in international conferences, leaders and participants would stop the bilateral meetings they were busy with to come and listen.

As we host the International Solidarity Conference and spend time with some of his friends and peers, we have an opportunity yet again to extend our heartfelt gratitude to Africa and the world for the contribution to our freedom.

Scores of our friends in the then Frontline States and now SADC and other countries in the African continent stood firm in their belief that they could not be truly free until South Africa was free.

We also had good relations with the Non-Aligned Movement which galvanized the peoples of the South – from India and Indonesia to Cuba and Brazil - in their struggle for a just world order that is free from the domination of the North.

The Soviet Union, China, India, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, the German Democratic Republic, the Nordic countries and many others.

His skilful diplomatic skills led to the recognition of the ANC by the Organisation for African Unity and the United Nations.

Through President Tambo, the Anti-Apartheid Movement flourished and remains one of the greatest multi-class, multi-religious, international solidarity movements ever seen in history.

Comrades and friends,

We are a united and democratic nation today whose vibrancy and unity in diversity are hailed around the world because President Tambo provided much-needed leadership to the collective when this was needed most.

As we consolidate his memory, we know that President Tambo would not be satisfied merely with us having achieved freedom and democracy.

He would urge us to rebuild that which apartheid and colonialism sought to destroy over many decades.

South Africa is in the process of transition and building a new nation, united in diversity. This is the fruition of President Tambo`s struggles and his dreams. It is the continuation of the mission of the organization.

What would he want us to do at this point in our history?

His instructions would first and foremost be directed to his organization itself. He would call on the ANC and on its members and supporters, to rise above petty squabbles internally and instead weld together a popular movement equal to the challenges of our times.

President Tambo would remind us not to confuse the nation and friends around the world through petty squabbles and factionalism.

As a leader of society, the ANC must lead by example, displaying cohesion, clarity and respect for one another and for the nation as a whole.

He would urge all of us to pursue the course of the greatest unity of democratic forces, especially the Revolutionary Alliance.

It is President Tambo who reminded us eloquently of the need for the unity of the Alliance. He said at the celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of the SACP more than 30 years ago:

"The relationship between the ANC and the SACP is not an accident of history, nor is it a natural and inevitable development. For, as we can see, similar relationships have not emerged in the course of liberation struggles in other parts of Africa…. Ours is not merely a paper Alliance, created at conference tables and formalised through the signing of documents and representing only an agreement of leaders.

"Our Alliance is a living organism that has grown out of struggle. We have built it out of our separate and common experiences".

He would remind us that the responsibility of the ANC membership and leadership is to keep our minds when all around us are losing theirs.

Our responsibility is to give our people hope and direction during the most difficult periods such as what happened a month ago with the Marikana tragedy.

President Tambo would empathize with the suffering masses and even those who demand instant solutions to the country`s problems.

Most importantly, he would require of us to be steadfast on principle and to display revolutionary discipline.

He would urge us to continue on this mission of a fundamental transformation of our country and to work for economic freedom and the prosperity of all our people, especially the poor and the working class.

He would urge us to unite and build our glorious movement the ANC, and protect it from all sorts of negative tendencies, corruption and opportunism.

Therefore, in his memory, we should at the upcoming 53rd national conference in Mangaung, take forward the renewal of the organisation.

We must recommit ourselves to renew the ANC`s core values and principles such as unity, selflessness, sacrifice, collective leadership, humility, honesty, discipline, hard work, internal debates and mutual respect.

South Africa needs a united, cohesive and strong ANC to take forward the transformation programme.

The finalisation of policies that were discussed at the June national policy conference should be the pre-occupation of delegates in December as we consolidate President Tambo`s legacy of building a better life for all.

These should be policies that will truly take our people out of the prison of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

And what would we tell President Tambo as the ANC?

We would be able to report to President Tambo that over the past 18 years we have been working hard to destroy the legacy of apartheid.

At a political level, we have succeeded to create a society premised on the principles outlined in the Freedom Charter.

We have a government based on the will of the people, elected every five years through a national democratic election.

The three arms of the state - the judiciary, legislature and the executive work in equal partnership to transform society and deliver services in their realm of work.

The country`s Constitution boasts a Bill of Rights that enshrines various freedoms and rights.

We have a vibrant civil society, allowing space for many NGOs and community organisations to flourish.

The ANC government works closely with social partners such as business, labour and the community sector, believing in collective leadership and working together. These networks consolidate our participatory democracy.

At the level of the delivery of basic services, water, electricity, roads, houses, clinics and other basic services have been extended to millions of people since 1994.

However, more people are still waiting and our task is to extend these services to more people each year.

As the Minister of Finance pointed out, the economic situation globally looks bleak, but locally we are going to do our best to cushion the economy and survive with the resources that we have.

And we have plans and policies to enable us to move forward, both in the short and long terms.

Through the National Planning Commission, we have produced an over-arching National Development Plan which outlines our vision of dealing with inequalities, social injustice, and the developmental challenges our society, leading towards a prosperous society.

Our New Growth Path framework, the short-term economic development programme, focuses us on a growth and employment creating path.

Our intention is to boost job creation in six pillars – tourism, infrastructure, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and beneficiation and the green economy.

Out of the six, we have this year singled out infrastructure development for an intensive focus.

We will spend around eight hundred and forty four billion rand over the next three years building schools, refurbishing hospitals, ports, rail, roads, power stations and other projects around the country.

We have made progress in various other areas. On health care we have turned around one of our weakest points previously, the fight against HIV and AIDS. The rate of new infections has decreased from 1.4 percent to 0.8 percent in the 15-24 age group and we have put more people on treatment than ever before thus improving life expectancy.

One of our greatest success stories is the remarkable 50 percent reduction in mother-to-child transmission of HIV from about 8 percent in 2008 to 3,5 percent in 2011.

Comrades and friends, all this work and more demonstrate that we have clear policies and plans.

We know what we are doing and we know where are going.

We are moving towards prosperity and a better life for all.

It will not always be easy. Things may not move as fast as we want them to, but we assure our people, especially the poor and the working class, that the commitment to improve the quality of life remains unwavering. Work is continuing in this regard.

We make a pledge to President Tambo that for as long as there are people who still live in shacks, children who being taught in mud schools, families with no access to quality health care and children who go to bed hungry, we cannot rest as the African National Congress.

We have a duty to build the type of society that OR Tambo sacrificed so much for.

We have a duty to build the type of society that so many comrades and friends around the world sacrificed so much for.

Comrades and friends,

In celebrating the international solidarity that assisted us in the attainment of freedom, we will today be proudly conferring one of our highest honours, the Order of the Companions of Oliver Tambo, to some distinguished friends of the people of South Africa from abroad.

We recognise among these His Excellency former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Percival James Patterson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson a tireless friend of the people of South Africa, Enuga Reddy and Rajni Kumar from India and Toshio Akiniwa from Japan, and also Brian Filling, a champion of the Free Mandela campaign in Scotland and a friend in need in innumerable respects.

We will also honour Dr. Jorge Risquet Valdes Saldaña from Cuba who witnessed the naked face of apartheid aggression in Angola.

We remain indebted to Cuba for the country`s strong statement that against apartheid`s regional tyranny at Cuito Cuinavale.

Fortunately comrades, with the exception of Palestine or the Western Sahara, most of the world has been decolonised. We remain mindful of the economic blockade against Cuba, which denies the Cuban people of their economic freedom.

The international solidarity conference will reflect on these outstanding matters as Western Sahara, Cuba and Palestine.

Comrades and friends,

President Tambo lived under constant pressure and stress, which at times affected his health. Given the demands of his position, he had little time to recuperate from illness.

He suffered the first stroke in 1989. In April 1993 he passed on, so close to seeing his dream come to fruition, to see South Africans voting together to usher in democracy a few months later in April 1994.

At OR`s funeral in 1993, a distraught President Nelson Mandela stated; "Oliver Tambo has not died because the ideals of freedom, human dignity and a colour-blind respect for every individual cannot perish".

We may have one of our most important gateways, the OR Tambo International airport named after him, as do other host of institutions and localities. But President Tambo`s legacy lives beyond that. It is in the blood, the heart and soul of the ANC.

It is manifest in our daily endeavours to create a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa of which all of us can be proud. And for that legacy, we shall be eternally grateful to this outstanding son of the South African soil.

Comrades, let me take this opportunity before concluding, to wish all Muslims in our country and visitors a very Happy Eid!

It is also my pleasure, at this important gathering, to also declare the 3rd International Solidarity Conference officially open, in the spirit of President Oliver Tambo.

I thank you.


1. Ellis and Sechaba, Comrades Against Apartheid, p.48.