Oliver Tambo at the United Nations: some reminiscences by Enuga S. Reddy, 2007

I first met Oliver Tambo at the United Nations in 1960 during the session of the General Assembly. He was meeting delegates of African States who had decided to propose a resolution on sanctions against South Africa, and the Non-aligned Group. He came to know U Thant, the ambassador of Burma, who chaired the small committee set up by the Non-aligned Group to deal with the South African problem. U Thant developed great respect for him. The Assembly, preoccupied with the crisis in the Congo, deferred discussion of apartheid and the African proposal failed to receive the required majority in 1961.

I heard later that Oliver had requested an appointment with Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations, during the latter’s visit to London in May 1960 in preparation for a visit to South Africa. Oliver could only meet an official who accompanied the Secretary-General and was warned not to tell the media about the meeting.

When Oliver came to the United Nations again in October 1963, the situation was very different. U Thant was now the Secretary-General. The General Assembly had, on 6 November 1962, called for sanctions by a majority vote and set up a Special Committee to follow the situation in South Africa. On 7 August 1963, the Security Council requested States to stop sales of arms to South Africa.

The Special Committee, boycotted by the Western Powers, became an effective pressure group for international sanctions against the South African government and for support to the liberation movement. I was appointed Principal Secretary of this committee. On the proposal of Diallo Telli, chairman of the Special Committee, the Assembly took up the issue of apartheid immediately after Nelson Mandela and others were charged in the Rivonia trial, and Oliver Tambo was heard in the Special Political Committee of the General Assembly. On 11 October, the Assembly adopted a resolution calling for an end to repression and to the Rivonia trial, by 106 votes to 1, with only the South African delegation voting against. The Special Committee proposed that, in view of the hardships faced by the families of political prisoners, the General Assembly request the Secretary-General to seek ways to provide assistance to them through appropriate international agencies and appeal to governments and organizations for contributions.

The officers of the Special Committee and I hosted a reception in honour of Oliver Tambo at the United Nations Headquarters, the first time that a leader of a liberation movement was so honoured. It was attended by U Thant and many ambassadors, including those from the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Oliver stayed in New York until December. He was sought after by many delegates. The Nordic delegations proposed a new initiative on the problem of South Africa. Per Haekkerup, the Foreign Minister of Denmark, explained in the General Assembly that sanctions alone could not bring about a peaceful solution and might well aggravate the situation. To allay the fears of the European population, he said, the United Nations must make clear that the alternative desired by the world was a truly democratic, multi-racial society with equal rights for all individuals, irrespective of race. It must consider how it could assist South Africa to achieve such a transformation and, in a transitional period, contribute to the maintenance of law and order. Norway proposed a resolution in the Security Council to request the Secretary”‘General to establish a small group of experts “to examine methods of resolving the present situation in South Africa through full, peaceful and orderly application of human rights and fundamental freedoms to all inhabitants of the territory as a whole, regardless of race, colour or creed.”

Oliver had serious reservations about the Nordic initiative. He felt it showed greater concern for the fears of the whites than for action against apartheid, and might lead to pressure on the liberation movement to make concessions. He told me: “Even if we have a prolonged struggle, we will need to go to a tent some time and negotiate an armistice. We will make concessions to the enemy during those negotiations, because he has the power. But we cannot now make concessions to other governments.”

Oliver also expressed concern that the proposal of the Special Committee for humanitarian assistance to families of political prisoners might divert attention from sanctions. Diallo Telli and I assured him that we would continue to focus on sanctions as the only means for a peaceful solution. The General Assembly approved the Special Committee’s recommendation on 16 December.

The Security Council adopted the Nordic proposal on 4 December and the Secretary-General set up a Group of Experts on South Africa with Mrs. Alva Myrdal of Sweden as the Chairman and Sir Hugh Foot of the United Kingdom as Rapporteur. I was appointed Secretary of the Group of Experts, in addition to my responsibilities as secretary of the Special Committee.

On returning to London, Oliver wrote to me that organizations there were enthusiastic about the United Nations appeal for assistance and that he looked forward to my visit.  When I visited London in February and April 1964, he arranged for me to meet Canon L. John Collins, Chairman of the Defence and Aid Fund for South Africa, and Mrs. Clara Urquhart of Amnesty International for consultations on assistance to South Africans. He also introduced me to the leaders of the ANC and its allies in exile, as well as activists in the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

I kept Oliver informed of the discussions in the Group of Experts and showed him an advance copy of its report in London even before it reached the Secretary-General in new York. He was reassured. He wrote to me later that “it was a happy surprise, considering my apprehensions last year.”

Since then I met Oliver many times, most often in London or New York. The visits to London were important for the effectiveness of United Nations action, as I could consult Oliver and other leaders of the liberation movement and the premier anti-apartheid movement, as well as the Defence and Aid Fund and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee for Open Sport (SAN-ROC) which made crucial contributions to the struggle. I made it a point to meet ex-prisoners and other exiles who had recently arrived from South Africa. From every visit to London and every meeting with Oliver, I returned with greater understanding of the situation in South Africa and with fresh ideas on initiatives which could be taken at the United Nations.

Oliver had great regard for the United Nations. He never indulged in radical rhetoric and idle exaggerations about the progress of the struggle. He used to brief me about the assessment and thinking of the ANC. He always treated me, as he did all activists against apartheid, as a partner in the struggle rather than a mere friend or supporter.

For my part, I kept Oliver informed, at our meetings and through personal letters, of developments at the United Nations and of possibilities for further action to assist the struggle for liberation. These communications were confidential; I took some risks because of my respect for the ANC and conviction that the United Nations should always act in consultation with the liberation movement and in harmony with its policies.

By the middle of 1964 the Special Committee had become the focal point for United Nations action against apartheid. Oliver appeared at meetings and conferences of the United Nations, no longer as a petitioner but as a distinguished guest. The subsequent decisions of the United Nations were entirely in harmony with the policies of the ANC and Oliver had no more apprehensions about them.

Broad Outlook

I was impressed by Oliver’s broad outlook. He always regarded the ANC as a trustee for the aspirations of all the black people and white democrats, rather than as a group with a partisan outlook. While he dismissed the rhetoric of the Pan Africanist Congress, he was courteous and considerate to individual members of the PAC. He stressed that all political prisoners, whatever their affiliations, should be provided legal assistance and their families supported. He recommended for United Nations scholarships not only ANC members but other qualified young people who, he felt, could contribute to a free South Africa.

In 1968, when we were consulting with the Swedish government about the Luthuli Memorial Foundation, he told us that it should be as broad as the vision of Luthuli, and assist not only ANC members and projects, but all worthwhile projects for South Africans.

Integrity and Courage

On a visit to London in 1966, I went to see Oliver at his flat. He was not home yet and Adelaide, his wife, was sick in bed. Adelaide, a nurse, had been working hard to maintain the family and her health was affected.

I enquired if it would be helpful for her to take an advanced or specialist course in nursing. The United Nations had just established a scholarship programme for South Africans and I offered to recommend a one-year scholarship for her. She was interested and I explained the procedure for an application.

Oliver came soon after. He was very disturbed until I explained to him that Adelaide did not ask me for a favour nor was I offering one. The programme had a provision for short-term scholarships for South Africans who had suffered persecution for their opposition to apartheid. I would recommend other political sufferers, whether they were leaders or not.

In 1967, a senior African official tried to undermine my position by complaining that I had employed a white South African woman, possibly a spy, in my office. I had employed her as a research assistant after consulting with Oliver as well as the PAC representative in New York.

I was deeply disturbed by the circumstances and nature of this move against me. I informed the United Nations that my conscience would not permit me to take action against her because of her racial origins. I offered to resign from the United Nations if the Secretary-General, the Chairman of the Special Committee or Oliver had any doubts about my integrity.

Oliver immediately sent me a cable urging me not to take a hasty step. He followed up with a letter stating that he had recommended the candidate after several colleagues who knew her had recommended her enthusiastically. “Needless to say I have given no thought to her skin colour, and have had no reason to do so since.” Only a leader of a liberation movement with great courage and integrity could write such a letter in those days.

Anxious to Go Inside South Africa

I met Oliver in London in 1974 when resistance by workers and students began to spread in South Africa. He told me with great passion, “ES, I have not told anyone outside the ANC executive, not even my wife, but I felt that I have to go inside South Africa. These young people need guidance and that can only be provided by our presence there. But the executive opposed that as a danger to security as I know everything about the struggle.”

 “Yes, I know everything,” he added, with a sigh reflecting his disappointment.

He was concerned that because of the banning of the ANC and its leaders, the young people may not know of the ANC and its policies. Soon after, the ANC underground became much stronger. After the student uprising in Soweto and violence by the regime, Oliver told me: “I knew that there would be brutal repression against the students. They would have to go underground – and in the underground they would find the ANC.” There was soon an exodus of young militants who wanted to join the Umkhonto, the military wing of the ANC.

Right of Self-Determination as the Objective

In the 1970s, the ANC and the PAC tried to persuade the Organisation of African Unity to define the situation in South Africa as a colonial problem. They were concerned that the African Liberation Committee was providing more support to movements from colonial territories and giving only token assistance to the ANC and the PAC. Oliver himself had said at the session of the OAU Council of Ministers in April 1975: “The problem that Africa has to face in South Africa is essentially a colonial problem, and like colonialism elsewhere it has to be removed root and branch.”

When I met Oliver in May 1975, I expressed my concern that defining apartheid as a colonial problem might create confusion in the United Nations and the West. In the Netherlands and other countries, governments and the public may suspect that the intention was to throw whites out of South Africa as alien occupiers. That would disrupt the consensus we had all been able to build up around the world against apartheid which had become a dirty word. During the course of the discussion, Oliver said that apartheid had become a hated term internationally and it was important to preserve that. The ANC, of course, did not seek to expel the whites. Its struggle was to ensure that the black people, who were deprived of any voice in decisions concerning the country since Britain transferred power to the whites, would achieve equal rights.

I asked if it would be appropriate for the United Nations to declare that its objective was to enable all the people of South Africa, irrespective of race, colour or creed, to exercise their right of self-determination. People of South Africa as well as the people in the colonial territories were struggling for liberation and genuine self-determination. Oliver fully agreed and since then that formulation was incorporated in  United Nations resolutions and declarations, many of which were adopted unanimously.

Honours to Mandela but None to Himself

In March 1978, I started writing personal letters to many anti-apartheid movements and governments drawing their attention to the 60th birthday of Nelson Mandela on July 18, 1978, and suggesting world-wide observance. I felt that I should seek the approval of the ANC before I proceeded further.

I spoke to Oliver on a visit to London in April. He said, “You know, ES, some of our people have been saying that my birthday should be observed as I am the President of ANC.” I knew that he had vetoed any public observance of his birthday.

He welcomed my initiative and said: “Yes. Nelson’s birthday should be observed. It is better if this comes from outside rather than from the ANC. You go ahead. We will associate ourselves with it in due course.”

The response to my efforts was far beyond my expectations. About 10,000 messages went to Mandela in prison or to Winnie Mandela. The “Free Mandela” campaign soon became an important aspect of the campaign for a free South Africa. Numerous awards and honours were bestowed on Mandela.

Oliver continued to discourage and oppose any honours to himself.

In 1985, I collected and edited Oliver’s speeches at the UN for publication in a book on the fiftieth anniversary of the UN in October. That would have been appropriate since racial discrimination in South Africa had been on the agenda of the UN General Assembly from its first session.

When I wrote to Oliver about the book, I received a curt telegram asking me to stop the publication immediately and confirm to him. He said the ANC National Committee would contact me. But I never received any message from the National Committee, and found later that members of the Committee had never heard about the matter. The book was delayed until I received approval from Oliver in 1991.

In 1987, Bishop Trevor Huddleston and I decided to promote the world-wide observance of Oliver’s 70th birthday. I spoke to Alfred Nzo, Secretary General of the ANC, when I met him in Delhi. He said: “Oliver would not hear of it, but we will try to find a way.” He promised to write to me after he returned to Lusaka. But I never heard from him and could do little except for the publication of a book in India in tribute to him, with a message by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

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