Address by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Hon JH Jeffery, MP, at the OR Tambo Centenary, held at the Red Hall, Municipality of Reggio Emilia, Rome, 1 December 2017
H.E. Ambassador Nomatemba Tambo, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of South Africa to Italy,
Dali and Rachel Tambo,
Ms Sarah Haines of the Tambo Foundation,
The Deputy Mayor, Ms Serena Forachia,
Mrs Bruna Soncini,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an enormous privilege for me to be able to share in these proceedings, as we honour and celebrate the life and legacy of Oliver Reginal Tambo.
As you may know, the Government of the Republic of South Africa has declared 2017 as the Year of OR Tambo.
As we celebrate the centenary of his birth, 2017 is dedicated to unity in action by all South Africans as we strive to move South Africa forward together.
Perhaps one of people closest to OR – as he was affectionately known – and a person with whom he would share a friendship lasting more than 50 years, was the highly respected Anglican priest and decorated anti-apartheid activist, Father Trevor Huddlestone.
Father Huddlestone, writing about Oliver Tambo, in ES Reddy’s book called “Apartheid and the International Community”, says the following:
“...for it is quite certain that when the full story of the liberation struggle in South Africa comes to be written the name of Oliver Tambo will be joined with that of his friend and partner, Nelson Mandela, as deserving of the highest honour.
It will never be forgotten, for without Oliver Tambo, it is true to say, the African National Congress could not have survived the years and years of repression and exile as it has done.
His presidency of the ANC began in exile, but was the fruit of years of experience as student, schoolmaster and lawyer within the country. He knew at first hand the meaning of apartheid and its destructive power.
When he was given the task of leaving South Africa in order to sustain the struggle against that massive evil he had no hesitation in doing so.
In those thirty years of exile for himself and his family he achieved recognition from the international community by the sheer integrity and intelligence of his commitment to liberation itself. But it was a colossal and immensely costly process.”
The world knows O.R. Tambo as being the President of the African National Congress from 1969 to 1991, making him the longest serving President of the party.
His life is one of selfless commitment to the cause of liberation, democracy and human rights.
Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo was born on the 27th of October 1917 in Mbizana in the Eastern Cape. His mother, Julia, was the third wife of Mzimeni Tambo, the son of a farmer and an assistant salesperson at a local trading store.
It is said that after his birth, Oliver was christened Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, whose forces fought the British during the 1st World War. This was his father's way of showing opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878.
According to the records of the Tambo Foundation, on his first day at school, his teacher asked him to come to school with a new English name. His parents chose Oliver.
This and a host of encounters with some of his first teacher’s strict nature made him dread school.
But a chance meeting with an eloquent young man who was a member of the debating society, in a different school, changed his attitude towards education and ignited a life-long love for discussion and debate.
He studied at the Anglican Boarding School, near Flagstaff, and later at St. Peter's Secondary School in Johannesburg where he set academic records, completing his matriculation with a first class pass in 1938. Awarded a scholarship, he studied at Fort Hare.
In 1941, OR obtained a BSc in Maths and Science. The following year, while studying towards his post-graduate qualification in Education, he was expelled from the University for participating in a student strike.
Upon hearing about his expulsion, his alma mater, St. Peter’s, offered him a job as a Maths and Science teacher.
While teaching in Johannesburg, he became a very active member of the ANC, forming the Youth League and becoming its first national secretary in 1944.
He began studying law in 1948 and, in December 1952, established, with Nelson Mandela, the first African legal partnership in South Africa.
They ran their law firm from 2 small offices on the second floor of Chancellor House. OR Tambo later wrote:
“MANDELA AND TAMBO said the brass plate on our office door. We practised as attorneys-at-law in Johannesburg in a shabby building across the street from the Magistrates' Court.
Chancellor House in Fox Street was one of the few buildings in which African tenants could hire offices: it was owned by Indians.
This was before the axe of the Group Areas Act fell to declare the area "white" and landlords were themselves prosecuted if they did not evict the Africans.
MANDELA AND TAMBO was written huge across the frosted window panes on the second floor, and the letters stood out like a challenge. To white South Africa it was bad enough that two men with black skins should practise as lawyers, but it was indescribably worse that the letters also spelled out our political partnership.”
In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote that for black South Africans, the Chancellor House offices of Mandela and Tambo were –
"a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin colour."
OR Tambo was elected a member of the Transvaal Executive Committee of the ANC in 1946 and, in December 1949, a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC.
In 1953, when Walter Sisulu was banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered to resign his post as Secretary General of the ANC, this role was given to OR Tambo.
In December 1956, Tambo was arrested together with 155 other leaders, and charged with treason. While out on bail he married Adelaide Tshukudu who was a nurse at the time.
In 1958, when Chief Albert Luthuli, the President-General of the ANC, was restricted, OR was appointed to the newly-created office of Deputy President-General. The next year, he himself was served with orders prohibiting him from attending any gatherings for a period of five years.
The ANC leaders soon became convinced that a ban on the ANC, followed by mass arrests, was imminent.
The National Executive Committee decided that Tambo should go abroad to set up an external mission and campaign for international sanctions against the apartheid regime.
He was to be the ANC’s international voice – the one to alert the world of what was really happening in South Africa, to expose the horrors of apartheid and mobilise the international community against the apartheid regime. Many of his international addresses and statements focus very specifically on sanctions and economic boycotts.
He left South Africa secretly a few days after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.
Provided with travel documents by the Indian Government, he proceeded to London where he set up an external mission of the ANC, soon after the organisation was banned in South Africa.
In 1961, when Nelson Mandela and other leaders founded Umkhonto we Sizwefor an armed struggle, Tambo was requested to take charge of military training of the freedom fighters.
With the arrest of Mandela and other leaders of the ANC and Umkhonto in 1963-64, and the imposition of severe restrictions on Chief Luthuli, it left OR with the responsibility for guiding the struggle of his people in South Africa, as well as redoubling efforts for international action in support of the struggle.
He was a key player in the armed struggle and with the support of other countries, places were provided for training camps for Umkhonto we Sizwe.
During this period, Tambo headed the ANC diplomatic mission to campaign globally and gain support for the anti-Apartheid cause. He also addressed the UN General Assembly, appealing for the freedom of South Africa.
In 1963, he gave an impassioned plea to the UN for the release of political prisoners in South Africa.
In 1967, after the death of ANC President-General Chief Albert Luthuli, Tambo became Acting President until his appointment was approved at the Morogoro Conference in 1969.
In 1982 Oliver Tambo suffered a mild stroke and, in 1989, he suffered a more severe stroke. With the assistance of President Kenneth Kaunda, he was taken to London for recovery.
It is said that upon his return, despite his illness, Tambo came to the ANC office, in Johannesburg, every day and still addressed public meetings of organisations.
In the early hours of the 24th of April 1993, two weeks after Chris Hani was assassinated, O.R suffered a fatal stroke.
He sadly passed away just a year before South Africa was to become a democracy – a year before he was to see his dream become a reality.
His life embodies the struggle for democracy, equality and freedom.
As he said in a statement to the Special Political Committee of the UN General Assembly in 1963, he knew exactly what South Africa ought to be and what the ANC was fighting for, it was for -
“... a South Africa governed by its people as fellow citizens of equal worth whatever the colour, race or creed of any one of them.
This kind of South Africa is the precise goal of our political struggle.”
Nelson Mandela, speaking at the funeral of OR Tambo, in May 1993 said:
“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.
He lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision.”
Perhaps the question we must ask ourselves today, both in South Africa, but also across the world, is whether we are succeeding in living up to these ideals, to these hopes and aspirations that OR Tambo had?
To what degree have we succeeded in building a non-racial and democractic society, in South Africa and in the rest of the world?
Are we succeeding in building a world founded on human rights, social justice and human dignity? And what is the state of human rights in the world?
If one looks at the 2016 Report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights one immediately notices what is called “an embattled context for human rights work.”
The Report states in every region across the globe, human rights actors faced challenges to law and principle and that respect for the three great bodies of international law – international humanitarian law; international human rights law and international refugee law – was eroded.
Conflicts remained intractable, driving out millions of people to seek the basic conditions for life elsewhere.
Most worrying, the Report mentions that religious hatred, xenophobia, homophobia and outright racism have returned to centre stage. Inequalities deepened divisions – thus undermining social cohesion and structuring economies to only benefit the few.
The report concludes by stating that certain governments restricted the ability of people to exercise their civil and political rights, which are essential in themselves and crucial to promoting and protecting economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.
Furthermore, studies tell us that in 2015 some 705 million people around the world were not only poor, but living in extreme poverty (in other words, living on less than US $1,90 per day.)
It is therefore no coincidence that the very first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The best way we can honour the legacy of OR Tambo is to continue to promote and defend human rights, democracy and equality in all parts of the world.
We must end poverty and devote ourselves to building a world that is free from inequality and free from discrimination and prejudice.
Perhaps the best way to do this is to ensure that we do not fail at reaching the targets set by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. A central pledge contained in the 2030 Agenda is to ensure that all goals and targets are met for all nations, peoples and for all parts of society, endeavouring to reach the furthest behind first.
Tomorrow a statue of OR Tambo will be unveiled here in Reggio Emilia in OR Tambo Park.
Let us keep his legacy alive by making sure that no one in the world is left behind.
It is what OR would have wanted us to do.
I want to close with the words of Nelson Mandela:
“Let all who value peace say together - long live Oliver Tambo!
Let all who love freedom say together - long live Oliver Tambo!
Let all who uphold the dignity of all human beings say together - long live Oliver Tambo!
Let all who stand for friendship among the peoples say together - long live Oliver Tambo!”
I thank you.