Oliver Tambo to E.S. Reddy: extracts from letters, 1964-1969

I recently went through my papers to collect my correspondence with Oliver Tambo in order to send it to archives.

The correspondence was quite extensive. I had met him in 1960 and we became friends. As one who was involved in the freedom movement in India, I felt that any support for a freedom struggle should be in consultation with those who are struggling. I began to write to him at some risk, since I became Principal Secretary of the Special Committee against Apartheid in 1963, detailed letters informing him of what we were doing at the United Nations and what we had in mind, and seeking his guidance. I received replies from him, unless we were due to meet soon or he could convey his views personally through Robert Resha and other colleagues. This lasted until the mid-1970s when the ANC was given observer status in the Special Committee and I could travel more often to Europe and Africa and meet Oliver.

Looking through the correspondence revived many old memories of the problems we encountered in trying to make the United Nations go beyond speeches and resolutions to ensure effective support to the liberation struggle in southern Africa, and especially of the friendship, thoughtfulness, integrity and statesmanship of O.R.

I decided to type a few extracts from the letters and share them with some friends who loved Oliver as I did and who knew the preoccupations of the UN, the liberation movement and the anti-apartheid groups in those days between the Rivonia Trial and the resurgence of the struggle in the 1970s.

E.S. Reddy

New York

August 1995


The Christmas holiday has brought a temporary lull, particularly because of the absence of any significant developments in S.A. Now, however, programmes for the new year have been worked out and are in the process of execution. Reports on activities flowing from these will soon be forthcoming...

Alan Paton is reported to have welcomed the establishment of a group of experts. 1

Other influential circles have also reacted very favourably to the idea. In part this is out of respect for the UN and the Scandinavians, and an expression of support for any move that has as its target the apartheid policies of the S.A. Government. In part this reflects an attitude of mind towards the South African situation which lacks the sense of urgency which underlies demands for sanctions. People who are sacrificing or are willing to make sacrifices to end apartheid immediately react to the idea of a group of experts by asking: "What exactly are they supposed to do?" This has turned out to be a difficult question... Of course I respect every one of the names so far mentioned, but I do think the UN ought to exercise great care in its use of such terms as "experts" for they necessarily relate to the scale or standard of values which it observes and employs.

The establishment of a UN Relief Fund for S.A. families of apartheid victims has aroused considerable interest here and enquiries are being persistently made as to what progress has been made in the matter, and also what machinery has been set up for administering it. 2


Many thanks for your notes. I'm delighted to learn you will be coming through here...

I am glad to note your reactions to the team [Group of Experts on South Africa]. I was already in the middle of an article in which I was not being very (merciful?). But I shall now take a softer line.

Instructions have been given for appointments to be made for you as soon as you advise the office of the date of arrival.

Finally, there are many organisations and people who are interested in handling the relief fund. Some are good organisations and I think all are manned by honest people. But not frequently you find people who are driven by ambitions rather than the zeal to serve... Should you have to give any guide as to the machinery, I trust you will bear in mind the necessity of keeping the Fund outside of any area of conflict or rivalry, which would tend to give it a party-political complexion. 3

My wife has very much improved - Thanks.

Regards to the family.


...It was a great privilege for us all to have you in London for a few days, and you helped to place the United Nations resolutions in perspective...

I expect to be leaving for Africa quite soon, but it should be possible for me to keep in close touch with the United Nations.

I hope you had a successful time in Geneva, and I wish you all success with your vast work at the United Nations.


Many thanks for your letter and for informing me of the impending meeting of the Security Council...

As it is, the probabilities are that I shall not come personally and may have to ask Mr. [Robert] Resha from London to attend. We are short of funds and are rapidly approaching a situation when it will be difficult for us to do the things we feel should be done.

I have received a very nice letter from Mrs. Myrdal and will be writing to her. I have also received a copy of the Experts' report, which is in many respects a happy surprise, considering my apprehensions last year. Of equal surprise is the importance which the sanctions conference 4and its deliberations and conclusions assumed, after a small and faulty beginning some time last year. With the interest which the Special Committee has taken in both the sanctions conference and the Experts' report, a powerful case for action by the Security Council can be made out, and would be the weightier if debated while these issues are hot, fresh and topical. On the other hand, however, any proposal for action must be based on events in South Africa. One of these events is the Rivonia Trial. I hope a formula can be found which enables the Security Council, in its discussions and decisions, not only to take into account the Experts' Report, the sanctions conference findings and the report of the Special Committee, but also to accommodate the results of the Rivonia trials and the impending executions of Mini and others.

We are giving this aspect some thought and hope to be able to make a feasible suggestion.

On the question of pressures, my view is that we must press for the kind of action which the situation demands and cast the burden of inaction on the big powers. At this time, with the mood that has been inspired by Mandela's statement, this is a burden they would not find it easy to accept. Let them offer compromises because it is they who are at fault by reason of their involvement. Last year things were made very easy and comfortable for them in the compromise resolutions adopted. This year they should be called upon to indicate where they now stand, since apartheid, especially with the rising numbers of executions and the Bantu Laws Amendment Bill, is mounting an offensive against us and world opinion. Besides, rightly or wrongly, the African States started off with strong demands. It is of course necessary to be realistic, but it would be a mistake to demand less, for if South Africa persists and the big powers in the West continue to resist action, a stepping down on demands could be the beginning of a complete withdrawal, ending in the disbandment of the Afro-Asian forces as far as this issue is concerned.


We thank you for your letter of 12th May, 1964, wherewith you enclosed a press summary of the meeting of the Special Committee.

We very much appreciate your sending us this summary, and are gratified by the efforts of the Special Committee to direct the attention of the United Nations to the need for immediate action against the policies of apartheid which, given a little more time, will set the world on fire. The threatened execution of the leaders of our people is a pointer to the vital importance of the time factor in the South African situation. We are happy to note that the Special Committee sees this so clearly.


...We welcome the statement issued by the Special Committee on Apartheid on the case of Mini and others. In our view the Committee discharged a very important duty to all concerned when it warned of the dangerous implications of South Africa's habit of killing our people under the pretext that they have committed a crime. Nothing that the South African Government's Courts do or say can ever alter the fact that the criminals are those who are perpetrating or assisting in the perpetration of the heinous crime known as apartheid. South Africa will surely find some day that it has taken one life too many from those it has learnt to decimate with impunity.

Thanking you and your Committee on behalf of my organisation and people...


Many thanks for your letter of Jan. 22, and for the enclosures which are very interesting and most informative.

I have been carefully perusing all the documents you have been sending me and much appreciate your continued assistance.

Give my regards to Mrs. Reddy and the kids, and a most successful New Year, both UN-wise and otherwise.


It was a relief to me to note that the element of time did not remove the effect of the [Christmas] card I sent you.

I have been following the events in the General Assembly over the financial crisis. It is to be regretted that important and urgent questions have had to be shelved for lack of a satisfactory formula.

The response to the appeal for relief [for families of political prisoners] is indeed disappointing. The burden placed on emerging countries is a heavy one and I am persuaded to agree with your suggestion to Canon Collins.

The mode of contact which could possibly yield results would be a visit to Sweden. It is difficult to say how soon this could be arranged. 5

The cost of sending children of prisoners to school would, in the context of the UN budget, be negligible. I should favour their being recommended for scholarship grants by individual Governments or semi-governmental bodies. In the meantime, however, we shall ascertain what is being done about their applications and furnish you with particulars. 6

I read Amb. Marof's 7

powerful reply to Muller. I'll get you a copy of the songs.

Your visit to East Africa is long overdue I should think. Let us know when you expect to be here...



At the beginning of the New Year, I would like to send cordial seasonal greetings to all friends of our cause, and particularly to our friends in the U.N. Special Committee on Apartheid.

Those of us who are engaged in the struggle for justice and for the destruction of racial oppression in our country are deeply grateful for all the help that is being given, both materially and morally, in our fight against a ruthless tyranny.

At this time of joy, there is much for us to sorrow over in our country, and unhappiness for many persons and families in South Africa who are bearing the brunt of apartheid oppression. But we are also conscious of the generous help which is being given by our friends, to alleviate hardship, to give legal assistance to those being persecuted for their resistance to apartheid, and to enable us to go on fighting in good heart.

For this we are especially grateful to the U.N. Special Committee on Apartheid and all its devoted workers. The Special Committee on Apartheid has engaged in many worthy ventures on behalf of the struggling masses of South Africa and I would particularly like to commend support for the Campaign for the Release of Imprisoned Politicians in South Africa; this is one project which we can never abandon, and which we must continually be working on. There can be no letting up until the men who are condemned to spend their lives in prison because they fought injustice are free: this is the duty which we owe to them and which we cannot abandon, and so I am especially glad to commend this project to which Defence and Aid International are now giving a great deal of their support and attention. 8


The fight for freedom must go on until it is won; until our country is free and happy and peaceful as part of the community of man, we cannot rest. And so, at the beginning of a New Year, I greet you all and wish you well and say: Thank you, and forward to the freedom of our country.


I owe you a thousand apologies for the delay in replying to your letters. I have been plagued by the thought that I deprived you of a Christmas day by writing rather unrestrainedly on a matter which, as I found out from your explanations, I had not all the facts. I hope a brief cable I sent you immediately on receiving your letter sufficiently indicated my full and unreserved acceptance of your explanation... 9

I would strongly advise you against your taking any precipitate step. 10

I need hardly say that there is so much at stake in the field in which we are involved that drastic decisions should follow painful, painstaking, and hard assessing and re-assessing of all the facts, and taking that decision only which in the final analysis must serve the ultimate cause. I don't have to say that I hope these things will be sorted out quickly and to the satisfaction of all concerned.

I look forward to three great events:

  1. Meeting Ambassador Marof;
  2. Meeting you;
  3. Attending the Seminar on Southern Africa. 11


This is a short note to apologise to you for my failure to return to the U.N. Seminar in Kitwe as promised. We had a very short time together on the night I was in Kitwe, and as you may have noticed I was tired and exhausted. I had looked forward to the end of the Seminar when we would have had time to examine a wide variety of problems of planning action for the future under more relaxed conditions.

But perhaps you understand now why I could not stay at the Seminar and why I was unable to come back later. 12

The situation in Rhodesia seems to be taking a turn for the better from the point of view of those who support and work for the African cause in that country. But as indicated in our many memoranda, and as was borne out by the very subject matter of the Kitwe Seminar, Rhodesia is an indivisible part of Southern Africa, hence the predictable involvement of South Africa in the battles which our Freedom Fighters are waging stubbornly and courageously in the bushes of Matabaleland. Soon the whole area, and I repeat, the WHOLE area of Southern Africa, will be caught up in the crisis. Unfortunately what happened at Wankie was the beginning of a racial war which may escalate into an international conflagration. Certainly for us the alternative to war disappeared when South Africa rejected the solution so ably and effectively advocated by the A.N.C. under the leadership of the now late Chief Lutuli. With his death on July the 21st this year the last hope for South Africa went.

As usual I am hoping to get out of here and go round the world begging for moral and material support for our struggle. But as usual also, I am likely to stay pinned down to the day-to-day problems imposed on us by apartheid, racial discrimination and colonialism in Southern Africa.

I hope you were satisfied with the results of the Seminar and that the decisions taken will form a basis for future action by the U.N. With some luck I might see you this year.


Many thanks for your letter of July 3 - quite a long time ago, because I have been away.

About mid-July, when I was preparing to go to Sweden, I learnt from Raymond [Kunene] that the Swedes would not be ready to go ahead with the [Lutuli Memorial] Foundation on the date proposed. I have not heard from either Raymond or Robbie [Resha] since, but I wish to thank you for your ideas in the matter, and, needless to say your sense of involvement. I have been under somewhat heavy pressures lately - and still am. The result has been that it has not been possible to keep pace with all projects and developments. But the clouds should disperse soon, leaving a reasonably clear sky under which to think, work and get things done.

I shall keep you informed of developments on the Foundation project, and I retain the hope of landing in the U.N. corridors later in the year. In this connection, however, I believe I have two leading figures recently come out of S.A. - Dr. W.Z. Conco is already in London and I notice has given evidence in Geneva; 13

and the other is under a Deportation Order requiring him to leave Swaziland by the end of this month. He is Mr. M.B. Yengwa, a lawyer, who offended the Swaziland Government by giving help to the dependents of jailed victims of apartheid.

Robbie has been having passport problems. I do not know if these have now been resolved. The delay in his getting to the U.S. has been frustrating, like much else that is happening.

Hope to hear from you from time to time, and look forward to the next opportunity for discussion on various questions.

P.S. This letter was drafted about 3 weeks ago when I returned to Zambia. I found it in the files the other day and am sending it on to you only for the purposes of record. 14


I had fleeting talks with Mr. Zoubeidi, whom I was regretfully unable to help as much as I should have liked to. Worse still, I could not personally meet the Sub-Committee. I had to be away on a mission I could not cancel. The ANC delegation which met the Sub-Committee was not of the usual ANC level, all being new in this kind of operation. I must confess I had not had time to study your voluminous correspondence and out-pourings of your very active intellect, and could not - indeed had no time, to brief our group. I handed them the papers to enable them to use them as best they could. I am hoping and expecting Alfred [Nzo] will be prepared in Dar.

Tonight, on arrival from "outer space", I found, and had dinner with, Bensid and Alo. 15

I came away quite excited over the prospects for the Lutuli Foundation. They will report fully to you, unless I find cause to write to you before they return to New York. I cannot write now because I am waiting to hear from Robbie [Resha] and Raymond [Kunene] who have a report to submit to me on this project. In any case until your brief holiday is over, I do not want to "burden" you - although I suspect you suffer from a feeling of mental "weightlessness" when you do not have a South African problem to solve or an anti-apartheid offensive to mount.

I am at present attending to certain vital things that have to be done, all of which are as difficult as they are urgent; but as soon as I can find adequate breathing space, I shall follow up the many ideas you have, and perhaps Robbie will come armed with these. In the meantime, accept my expressions of very deep appreciation of your work and your infectious devotion and commitment to the liberation struggle in South Africa. Your personal contribution is most remarkable for its quality and quantity. It will not be long, I think, before we evolve a machinery that will maximise its effectiveness.

And now, my brother, let me bring this hurried note to a close with my very best wishes for a restful holiday and, after it, fruitful and rewarding service...


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