South African’s National Liberation Movement

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Memorial Lecture

"A Great Giant who strode the Globe like a Colossus"

The day, 24 April 2023, marks exactly thirty (30) years since the passing of the most distinguished leader of our movement, Isithwalandwe/Seaparankoe, President Oliver Reginald (OR) Tambo. A member of what I call a special generation in the history of our movement. It is the generation that founded the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944 and went on to successfully lead our movement for five uninterrupted decades and, ultimately, delivered the political freedom that we enjoy today.

They set themselves a “programme of action” which the then leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) adopted as an “ANC Policy” in 1949. They understood that for the programme to be implemented successfully, this generation of youth leaguers needed to be part of its execution. This is why OR Tambo and others from that generation were first elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC in 1949.

This is a generation that unflinchingly devoted their lives to the creation of a new democratic South Africa that is united, non-racial, and non-sexist.

It was their leadership collective that directed the Defiance Campaign in 1952 and shaped the mass movement that led to the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955.

As we gather here today, exactly thirty years after his passing, we remember him as a leader who was head and shoulders above all. A leader who led the movement during the most difficult times, and yet, kept it intact. This was an era where security and discipline were intertwined. 

Isithwalandwe/Seaparankoe President Tambo went into exile in the early 1960s where he established a foreign mission aimed at galvanising support for the movement. He successfully arranged training facilities and funding for the recruits of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

“A great giant who strode the globe like a colossus” as described by President Nelson Mandela – his comrade and more importantly his partner in the struggle for liberation – President OR frequently made compelling representations about the monstrous apartheid to various international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) which ultimately led to the declaration of apartheid as a crime against humanity. He achieved this with distinction due to his exceptional attributes which he brought to the leadership collective that he served with.

The book compiled by Mama Adelaide Tambo named “Preparing for power: Oliver Tambo Speaks” details some of the speeches which President Tambo made to these organisations. Having read the speeches and public engagements, one can confidently say President OR cherished human dignity, peace, freedom, and strongly respected every individual he came across. It is these principles that gave our movement character.

When the ANC was faced with challenges because of the disruption of internal ANC structures in the late 1960s, President OR demonstrated his leadership qualities by steering the consultative Morogoro conference. It was this watershed conference that introduced two important policy changes to the movement. The first being the resolution to allow non-Africans to the ANC, and secondly, the adoption of the revolutionary programme which formalised the Strategy and Tactics which continue to guide the movement today. This was done successfully despite heavy criticism from within. His ability to listen and appreciate the views of members at the conference enabled him to address the issues raised, and as a result, deal with the criticism directed to him and his leadership collective. This, we must emulate as ANC members and leaders, and appreciate that criticism is not an insult, but can serve as a mirror which will show us our blind spot.

As a result of the advances made in the development of the struggle by the leadership collective led by President OR in the 1980s, the Decade of Liberation saw the people of this country increasingly becoming active in the struggle and acknowledged the ANC as a vanguard movement for the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). It was during this decade that the ANC devoted even more attention to the development of cadres and revolutionaries who understood the policies of the ANC and were in contact with the people and appreciated their situation. It was during this decade that President OR’s leadership collective further resolved to intensify the campaign for the liberation of women and their involvement at all levels.

President OR was a principled leader who earned the trust of the people. There is no doubt that the ANC exists today because of the selfless contribution of President OR and his collective. ANC members must all learn from this collective and emulate the lodestar President OR was.

For the ANC to remain relevant, we are all duty bound to honour and nurture the trust of the people of South Africa to the movement. We must ensure that the trust between the movement and the people is at its highest and therefore deal with the emerging and growing trust deficit between the people and our movement.

The people of South Africa and beyond, expect the conduct of members of the ANC to be of high standards. Therefore, ANC members must be distinct and different from others. Like President OR, ANC members must be incorruptible, not only in politics, but also in personal life.

There is no doubt that South Africa needs ethical and principled leaders in  pursuance of the NDR. The attainment of the NDR remains the common purpose of the alliance which President OR Tambo cherished. It is, therefore, imperative for the alliance partners to strive for maximum unity. We must be able to trust one another, be upright to another, never second guess one another, and always know where we stand with one another.

We must be able to criticise one another when necessary, however, like President OR, we must equally be constructive in dealing with criticism and insist on addressing issues raised.

We have a collective responsibility to safeguard the movement which President Tambo sacrificed his life for and handed it over in 1991 with the hope that it will be protected for the benefit of future generations. To do this, we must confront the many challenges that face our movement and the nation.

Ours is a revolutionary movement whose aim is to represent the interests and aspirations of the people of South Africa in general, and Africans in particular. We must, therefore, ensure that we address the current electricity challenges that impede our economic growth, and exacerbate poverty, unemployment, and inequality. We need to do the right things now as the risk of prolonged loadshedding is immeasurable. Our focus should be on improving Eskom’s Energy Availability Factor (EAF), procurement of emergency power, purchasing of electricity beyond our borders and improving skills capacity at Eskom.

In conclusion, as we celebrate the life and times of President OR Tambo, we must express our appreciation to the Tambo family. To ANC members and alliance partners, let us work on strengthening the movement and ensure that OR Tambo’s immeasurable contribution to the struggle for freedom does not go in vain. 

Long live the spirit of President OR Tambo, long live!