Oliver Tambo

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo , also known as O. R. Tambo, was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as President of the African National Congress from 1967 to 1991.


Early life

Tambo was born on in the village of Nkantolo in Bizana; eastern Pondoland in what is now the Eastern Cape. The village Tambo was born in was made up mostly of farmers. His father, Mzimeni Tambo, was the son of a farmer and an assistant salesperson at a local trading store. Mzimeni had four wives and ten children, all of whom were literate. Oliver's mother, Mzimeni's third wife, was called Julia.
Tambo came from a stable family in which his father's children had to have a good education. He attended Anglican and Methodist missionary schools, including Holy Cross missionary school with his brother in April 1928. After five years at the Holy Cross, Tambo excelled in his studies and transferred to St. Peter's in Johannesburg.
Tambo graduated in 1938 as one of the top students. After this, Tambo was admitted to the University of Fort Hare but in 1940 he, along with several others including Nelson Mandela, was expelled for participating in a student strike. In 1942, Tambo returned to his former high school in Johannesburg to teach science and mathematics.


In 1943, Tambo, Mandela and Walter Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League, with Tambo becoming its first National Secretary and a member of the National Executive in 1948. The Youth League proposed a change in the tactics of the anti-apartheid movement. Previously, the ANC had sought to further its cause by actions such as petitions and demonstrations; the Youth League felt these actions were insufficient to achieve the group's goals and proposed their own "Programme of Action". This programme advocated tactics such as boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes, and non-collaboration.
In 1955, Tambo became Secretary-general of the ANC after Sisulu was banned by the South African government under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1958, he became Deputy President of the ANC and in 1959 was served with a five-year banning order by the government.

Exile in London

In response, Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mobilise opposition to apartheid. He settled with his family in Muswell Hill, north London, where he lived until 1990. His exile took a toll on him not seeing his wife and three children, but his wife Adelaide supported the ANC at home by taking in ANC members arriving in the UK.
In 1967, Tambo became Acting President of the ANC, following the death of Chief Albert Lutuli. He sought to keep the ANC together even after he was exiled from South Africa. Due to his skillful lobbying, he was able to attract talented South African exiles, one of them being Thabo Mbeki.
On 30 December 1979 in Lusaka, Zambia, Tambo as President and Alfred Nzo, then Secretary-general of the ANC, met Tim Jenkin, Stephen Lee and Alex Moumbaris, ANC members and escapees from incarceration at Phillip kgosi prison as political prisoners. Their presence was officially announced by the ANC in early January and Tambo introduced them at a press conference on 2 January 1980.

Guerrilla activity

Tambo was directly responsible for organizing active guerilla units. Along with his comrades Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, and Walter Sisulu, Tambo directed and facilitated several attacks against the apartheid state. In a 1985 interview, Tambo was quoted as saying, "In the past, we were saying the ANC will not deliberately take innocent life. But now, looking at what is happening in South Africa, it is difficult to say civilians are not going to die."
The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997-1998 identified Tambo as the person who gave final approval for the 20 May 1983 Church Street bombing, which resulted in the death of 19 people and injuries to 197-217 people. The attack was orchestrated by a special operations unit of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe, commanded by Aboobaker Ismail. Such units had been authorised by Tambo as President of the ANC in 1979. At the time of the attack, they reported to Joe Slovo as chief of staff.
The ANC's submission said that the bombing was in response to a South African cross-border raid into Lesotho in December 1982 which killed 42 ANC supporters and civilians, and the assassination of Ruth First, an ANC activist and wife of Joe Slovo, in Maputo, Mozambique. It claimed that 11 of the casualties were SADF personnel and hence a military target. The legal representative of some of the victims argued that as they were administrative staff, including telephonists and typists, they could not be considered a legitimate military target.
Ten MK operatives, including Ismail, applied for amnesty for this and other bombings. The applications were opposed on various grounds, including that it was a terrorist attack disproportionate to the political motive. The TRC found that the number of civilians versus military personnel killed was unclear. South African Police statistics indicated that seven members of the SADF were killed. The commission found that at least 84 of the injured were SADF members or employees. Amnesty was granted by the TRC.
In 1985, he was re-elected President of the ANC.

Return to South Africa

He returned to South Africa on 13 December 1990 after over 30 years in exile, after having been elected National Chairperson of the ANC in July of the same year. He was able to return to South Africa because of the legalization of the ANC. When he returned after his time in exile he received lots of support. Some of that support even came from old rivals. However, because of his stroke in 1989. It was harder for him to fulfill his duties as President of the ANC, so in 1991 Nelson Mandela took over as president of the ANC. When stepping down as president however, the congress created a special position for him as the National Chairman.


After suffering complications following a stroke, Tambo died on April 24, 1993 at the age of 75. His death came 14 days after Chris Hani's assassination and one year prior to the 1994 general election in which Nelson Mandela became the President of South Africa. Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Walter Sisulu attended the funeral. Tambo was buried in Benoni, Gauteng.

International relationships

The strong fight against apartheid brought Tambo to form a series of intense international relationships.
In 1977, Tambo signed the first solidarity agreement between the ANC and a municipality: the Italian town of Reggio Emilia was the first city in the world to sign such a pact of solidarity. This was the beginning of a long understanding which brought Italy to put an effort into concrete actions to support the right of southern African people's self-determination; one of these actions was the organization of solidarity ships. The first one, called "Amanda", departed from Genova in 1980.
It was Tambo himself who asked Reggio Emilia to mint Isitwalandwe Medals, the greatest of the ANC's honors.


In 2004, he was voted number 31 in SABC3's Great South Africans, scoring lower than H. F. Verwoerd, before the SABC decided to cancel the final rounds of voting. The decision to cancel the results was largely informed by the fact that the majority of blacks South Africans did not participate in the voting, as SABC3 caters predominantly to English speakers.
In late 2005, ANC politicians announced plans to rename Johannesburg International Airport after him. The proposal was accepted and the renaming ceremony occurred on 27 October 2006. The ANC-dominated government had previously renamed Jan Smuts Airport as Johannesburg International Airport in 1994 on the grounds that South African airports should not be named after political figures.
There is a bust of O.R. Tambo at the Albert Road Recreation Ground, Muswell Hill, outside the Alexandra Park School. In June 2013, the city of Reggio Emilia celebrated Tambo with the creation of a park dedicated to the President of the African National Congress.
His house at 51 Alexandra Park Road, Muswell Hill, London, was purchased by the South African Government in 2010 as an historic monument and now bears a plaque.
Tambo's grave was declared a National Heritage site when he died but lost this status when his wife, Adelaide Tambo, died and was buried alongside him. However their grave was re-declared a National Heritage site in October 2012.
To conclude the centenary celebrations of the birth of Tambo, a commemoration was held at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Moroka, Soweto on 27 October 2017. This same event marked also the centenary of the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi. The event was curated by Ambassador Lindiwe Mabuza and Fr Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu, together with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation. Participating choirs were the Imilonji kaNtu Choral Society, Johannesburg Metro Police Choir and Ekurhuleni Metro Police Choir. The soloist of the day was Sibongile Khumalo.