• Programme Director
  • Leadership of the Organisation of Cde. Oliver Tambo and the Alliance
  • Business Community
  • Comrades
  • Patriots
  • Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me start by saying it is very unfortunate that we do not talk often enough about this African giant, this true son of the soil and one of the most substantial leaders our revolution ever produced, Cde. President Oliver Reginald Tambo.

I will argue here that, all of us, Black and White owe our democracy and the societal progress from Apartheid to a democratic South Africa substantially to O.R. (as he was affectionately known). It is thus quite humbling for me to be here today and to share with you what we think is the best way to pay tribute and honour this revolutionary giant and intellectual.

Oliver Reginald Tambo was born exactly 94 years ago, 27 October, 1917 in Bizana Pondoland, in the now Eastern Cape. At 16 years old OR was already orphaned. Despite growing up without parents he continued with his studies and finally graduated as a scientist, majoring in mathematics and Physics from the University of Fort Hare. It is said he wanted to be a medical doctor, but he ended up training as a teacher and taught at St. Peters in Johannesburg. He later trained as an attorney and joined his old friend Cde Nelson Mandela in a law practice in Johannesburg in 1952.

Allow me to strike a personal note for a moment, I guess the majority of us who ended up pursuing law were influenced by them. Both Mandela and OR did not study law because of their myopic personal interest, but they pursued a career in law because of their desire to serve the Black people who were persecuted and prosecuted on a daily basis because of the litany of oppressive apartheid laws, including, but not limited to, Group Areas Act, Immorality Act and Pass Laws. They wanted to be on the side of the oppressed, the persecuted and repressed people.

It is now common cause that together with other stalwarts like Anton Lembede, Walter Sisulu, Jordan Ngubane, Nelson Mandela and others they formed the ANCYL in 1944, an organisation which became the training ground and party school of many other ANC leaders. At that early age it became very clear to the elders of the African National Congress that in OR they had a cadre and a leader of a special type who always led from the front.

He thus rose through the ranks of the ANC until he became the Deputy President of the ANC in 1958. His leadership qualities did not go unnoticed, such that the President of the ANC at the time Inkosi Albert Luthuli remarked about OR, "The quality of our Deputy President, Oliver Tambo`s speech makes me very happy- even if I and others in the leadership of the ANC were to die, there are young men like Oliver Tambo who are now ready to take responsibility for the ANC".

Comrades, Compatriots ladies and gentlemen how many of us could have been noticed by this Nobel Peace Prize winner? It is important to note that Inkosi Luthuli speaks about taking responsibility for the ANC. Indeed leadership is about responsibility. So I can say here and now that indeed OR was a leader who earned his stripes in the struggle and was always the first one to answer to the call to liberate our people.

The question comrades and friends we must ask ourselves is whether the elderly of the ANC can say the same about us? Do they have something to fear if they were to die? Are we selflessly and fearlessly leading from the front?

It is clear to me and all of us who had the rare privilege to be led by this giant that he was a leader who had a calling to serve the people of South Africa. He knew that South Africa and its people did not owe him anything. President Nelson Mandela, in OR`s eulogy remarked,

"Oliver lived not because he could breathe. He lived not because blood flowed through his veins. Oliver lived not because he did all the things that all of us as ordinary men and women do. Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people".

Yes, he had surrendered his very being to the service of the people of our country and indeed the whole African continent. Oliver Tambo nationalized himself and till his death he belonged to all of us. My brother, my sister and indeed all of you my fellow countrymen, how many of us can claim without any fear of contradiction that we have surrendered our very being to the people. I will leave that with you as food for thought. Indeed he never worried himself about or what his country could do for him; instead he was willing to serve his country until his last day. Richard Nixon might have been describing him when he said: No man has lived until he has found a cause bigger than himself.

The essence and the founding philosophy of the African National Congress is Unity, Unity, and Unity! When the ANC was formed about 100 years ago its sole purpose was to unite the African people, irrespective of their tribal, racial or religious backgrounds. It aimed to unite the Kings and us commoners so that we could better fight a colonial system which was treating the indigenous people of this country as "non-people". It was meant to unite our people against the clubbing together of the English and the Afrikaners against the black people when they formed the Union of South Africa in 1910. Therefore, anything which acts against this "unity" or undermines it is the antithesis of our glorious history as the ANC, the very foundation of the struggle of the people.

Comrades and my fellow countrymen there is nobody who understood that founding principle of the ANC better than Cde Oliver Tambo. Oliver Tambo would not end his speech without harping on the primacy of UNITY. On the 70th birthday of the ANC he observed, "Our strength lies in unity, and our future advances, in action. Without Unity we are weak, and without action we remain oppressed", he continued and said, "The gains recorded during the 70 years of struggle have given us the possibility to achieve such unity in action". The question for all of us here and the whole country is:

"Are we united as South Africans to better challenge the ills of our society like hunger, disease, HIV and AIDS, crime, racism and unemployment?"

Oliver Tambo teaches us that if we are not, we shall not triumph, but we surely shall perish. The centrality of Unity in the struggle for peace and justice in our country prompted the ANC of Oliver Tambo to declare that year as "A YEAR OF UNITY IN ACTION". It will perhaps interest you to note that the following year, 1983, was declared the "YEAR of UNITED ACTION".

Ladies and gentlemen, Comrade Oliver Tambo acted as glue which held all of the ANC in exile, prison and inside the country together. He was very much aware that the apartheid regime also understood that our strength was our deepest source of unity. He understood that it would do anything to undermine the struggle of our people and its vanguard organisation, the African National Congress. He understood that enemies of true liberation would always attempt to sow discord between the leadership elements of our beloved organization.

When Oliver Tambo was tasked a week after Sharpeville massacre to go to exile and unite Africa and the world against a system which was later declared a "crime against humanity" by the United Nations, he complied. He understood the dangers of the route he was ordered to take. He fully understood that he could be killed by a vicious system which respected no borders. But for OR nothing could come between him and the desire to liberate his people. He was always prepared to make the supreme sacrifice and pay the ultimate price. He was least concerned about self-preservation. Like many other tasks he had been given before, he performed this one with supreme distinction. Indeed he united the whole world against the obnoxious apartheid regime.

Amongst those victories that he led whilst in exile:

  1. He united the people of the world, democrats and all peace loving people, against apartheid.
  2. He promoted Nelson Mandela as a worldwide symbol of resistance and political freedom.
  3. He initiated the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth.
  4. Due to his tireless advocacy, the United Nations declared apartheid in 1973 as a "crime against humanity".
  5. South Africa was expelled from FIFA.
  6. Economic Sanctions were instituted against South Africa.
  7. Sports and Cultural Boycotts were declared against the regime.
  8. By 1990 the ANC had more foreign missions than the then Apartheid South Africa.
  9. Forced the Apartheid regime to unban people`s organisations and release all political prisoners.
  10. Forced the regime to talk to the real leaders of our people not the Bantustan and tricameral parliament stooges who were, in his words, "guilty of impersonating leadership".
  11. He led the crafting and the promotion of the Harare Declaration which became the road map for the negotiations of a future democratic South Africa.
  12. He led and inspired the direction and content of the sun-set clauses which created more trust around the negotiations table, and also addressed fears of the minorities and enabled us to find many solutions around the negotiation tables. South Africa was able to move on into a new future.
  13. A good listener, a true leader of our people.

I urge all of you here today to work for unity of purpose like this leader did. He believed in unity until his death. I am reminded of his moving speech that he gave at the ANC conference at the University of Durban Westville, speaking to a 30 year report. At all times he was aware of the centrality of accountability of any person who claims to be a leader. Leaders should be accountable and they must be made to account. In his emotional Report OR said:

"Before I sit down, I want to make a few observations: we did not tear ourselves apart because of lack of progress at times. We were always ready to accept our mistakes and to correct them. Above all we succeeded to foster and defend the unity of the ANC and the unity of our people in general. Even in bleak moments, we were never in doubt that the people`s cause shall triumph"

In honouring this revolutionary, this intellectual, this teacher, this commander, this leader of eminence, I call upon all of us to fight for the unity of our people; lets fight for the unity of all our people, black and white, so that we can emerge triumphant against all the scourges of our society, against starvation and malnutrition, against ignorance, the fight against unemployment and homelessness. Let us fight for the system whose wealth shall be used for the benefit of all our people. Let`s fight for a system which frowns and fights fiercely upon the politics of patronage.

  1. Let us learn the lessons of this iconic leaders life, therefore let us:
  2. Not be the architects of our own demise.
  3. Let us not find pleasure in feasting on each other`s blood.
  4. Let us build our young leaders into worthy senior leaders of the organization.
  5. Let us be selfless in what we aim for.
  6. Let us unite rather than divide.
  7. Let us look for the best in one another at all times, across all racial divides.
  8. Let us place the organizations` interests above our personal interests.
  9. Let us work together to destroy corruption.
  10. Let us unite against unemployment.
  11. Let us unite.


Long Live the Spirit Of Oliver Tambo

Long Live the Spirit of Unity

Thank You

Issued by:

African National Congress