top of page

Welcome home Oliver Tambo!

In March 1960, the African National Congress (ANC) realised that it was going to be banned. It decided immediately to send its vice-president, Oliver Tambo, out of the country. Tambo’s mission was to open offices in the outside world and keep the struggle for freedom alive in the minds and the hearts of the people of the world.

Two days after he left, the ANC was banned. Tambo was to remain in exile and at the head of the organisation for the next thirty years. His strong leadership and untiring dedication to the ANC helped to turn the organisation into what it is today…

After three decades of exile, Tambo is home. In this article, Learn and Teach pays tribute to this outstanding leader of the people of South Africa.

It is Saturday, 27 October 1917…

Under the shade of a big womga tree sit the old, grey-haired men of the village. They pass an isatyi of umqombothi from hand to hand. A few paces away, pots are filled with the tasty smell of mqchushu and mutton. The villagers of Enkatsweni, near Bizana in the Transkei, are here to welcome the birth of a new baby, the son of Frederick and Julia Tambo.

The Tambos named their new-born son Oliver Reginald — or OR for short. Little did the proud parents realise that their boy would rise to become one of the greatest leaders in South African history — and the President of the oldest liberation movement in Africa.

Frederick and Julia Tambo owned an orchard and a fowl-run. It was the young Tambo children’s job to look after the property. Frederick believed in developing the spirit of responsibility and management at a young age!

At the age of twelve, Oliver went to school at the Methodist Mission School in Ludeke. He got a first class pass in Standard Six — but he could not afford to study further because the family had no money. So, instead of leaving, he passed the same standard three times! Each time, he got a first-class pass.

In the mid-1930s, Oliver was given the chance to continue his schooling at the Holy Gross Mission near Flagstaff. After passing his junior certificate exams, the missionary school gave him a scholarship. He went to St. Peter’s School in Johannesburg where he passed matric with a first class pass in 1938.


The following year, Tambo got a bursary from the Transkei legislative assembly to go to university. He registered for a Bachelor of Science degree at Fort Hare. It was here that he met Nelson Mandela and the two became great friends.

After completing his BSc degree, Tambo enrolled for a University Education (teaching) Diploma. “I didn’t really want to be a teacher, but there was nothing else I could do. There were very few opportunities for educated Africans and teaching was one of them,” Tambo would later say.

In his fourth year of university — 1942 — Tambo’s leadership skills were recognised. He was elected head of the committee of the Anglican Church Hostel on campus. 1942 was also the year that Tambo became very politically aware. He remembers an incident that made him determined to devote his life to the struggle against racism — wherever it was found.

One day, a white boarding master hit an African woman employee. To Tambo’s horror, no action was taken against the man. The students organised a protest against the university and Tambo played a key role in it.

The young student realised that even the church carried the disease of racism. “This incident forced me to take a critical look at the church and racism in general. It forced me to take the step of fighting against all forms of racism. I was never to regret this decision,” he later said.

Tambo was a devout Anglican and still is. But he could not accept racist attitudes in the church. After taking part in another protest action against racial discrimination in the church, he was expelled. He taught at St. Peter’s High School in Johannesburg for a few years. Among his students was Duma Nokwe, who later became ANC Secretary-General in the 1950s.


In the meantime, the ANC was getting a lot of support from young people and the organisation formed a youth wing called the ANC Youth League in April 1944. Tambo, AP Mda, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, and others became the leaders, with Anton Lembede as president. Tambo was elected National Secretary and later became Transvaal regional president. From 1948 to 1949, he was the League’s National Vice- President.

Until the formation of the Youth League, the ANC was a “hamba kahle organisation”, making representations to the government. But with the arrival of the “young lions of 1944” things changed… The Youth League decided that the time for reasonable talk was over — it was time to make demands.

The first step was to draw up a document called the African Claims, which demanded a Bill of Rights and an end to racial discrimination. This was followed by the Programme of Action of 1949 and the Defiance Campaign of 1952.

By the end of these campaigns the ANC had become a militant mass organisation with 100 000 members. Many young men, such as Lembede and Mandela, were steadily making up their way in the organisation. Tambo was among them. In 1946 he was elected onto the ANC’s Transvaal Executive Committee.


During these years of political work, Tambo was still teaching at St. Peter’s. But he left to study law in 1948, after the death of Anton Lembede, who was a lawyer. Tambo remembers that it was Walter Sisulu who first gave him the idea of studying law. The story goes that Sisulu said to him: “Lembede is dead. Why don’t you take up law?” And so, he did.

Tambo completed his degree at Wits University and went on to open a law firm with Nelson Mandela in 1952. “Mandela and Tambo” was the sign on the door of their office at Chancellor House — opposite the Johannesburg Magistrate’s court. No problem — big or small — was too much for the young lawyers and there were always queues of people outside the office. Tambo remembers how he often had to climb over people so that he could reach his own office in the morning!

Mandela and Tambo’s friendship continued after their law firm was forced to close because of the Group Areas Act. Mandela was to write from his prison cell about this friendship many years later, in February 1985…

“Oliver Tambo is much more than a brother to me. He has been my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years. If there is any one amongst you who cherishes my freedom, Oliver Tambo cherishes it more, and I know he would give his life to see me free. There is no difference between his views and mine.”


The end of the 1940s saw the National Party (NP) coming into power. Apartheid became the law of the land. In 1949, the NP passed the Immorality Act and the Separate Amenities Act. At the same time as the Nats were passing laws to stop black resistance, Tambo was rising in the ANC. He was elected onto the National Executive Committee (NEC) in the same year.

In May 1950, the government passed the Suppression of Communism Act and banned the Communist Party of South Africa. The ANC held a protest meeting and Tambo spoke: “Today it is the Communist Party. Tomorrow it will be our trade unions and the Congress.”

The 1950s were years of intensified struggle. The ANC organised a huge protest against the “dompas” in 1952, and launched the Defiance of Unjust Laws campaign. In 1955 the Freedom Charter was drawn up and a year later in 1956, 20 000 women marched to Pretoria in protest against passes. Their banner — the ANC.

The state reacted to the struggles by banning ANC members under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1954, Tambo was given a two-year banning order under this act — even though he was not a member of the Communist Party. He was banned again in 1959.

The ANC continued to organise and get support despite the bannings of the leaders. So in 1956, the state fought back by arresting 156 leaders of the Congress Alliance — including Tambo, Mandela, Sisulu and Joe Slovo. All 156 people were charged with treason. The state’s argument was that the Freedom Charter was part of a communist plot to overthrow the government. The charges against Tambo and others were dropped in December 1957.

In the meantime, Tambo had been elected ANC Secretary-General in 1955. In 1958, when the ANC’s President-General, Chief Albert Luthuli, was banned, Tambo was elected Deputy President.

But even for Tambo, life was not all politics and no play. In 1957, he fell in love and married Adelaide Tshukudu, a young nurse. The couple have three children — Dudulani, Dalindlela and Tambi.


On 21 March 1960 the PAC held a protest march against passes in Sharpeville. Sixty-nine people were shot dead by the police. The ANC National Executive Committee met on 28 March 1960 to discuss developments. It was clear that the government would act against people’s organisations.

It was then that the NEC decided that Tambo should leave the country. The banning of the ANC and the PAC closed the doors of peaceful forms of struggle that the ANC had followed for almost 50 years. The ANC decided that the armed struggle was the answer to police and army bullets.

Mandela and others set up the National High Command whose responsibility was to prepare for a violent overthrow of the government. On 16 December 1961, the birth of Umkhonto we Sizwe — the Spear of the Nation (MK) — was announced with bomb blasts in the major cities. From 1962 “amadelagufa” — those prepared to die — left the country to undergo military training in Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Egypt and later in Zambia, Tanzania, the Soviet Union and East Germany.

In 1963, many members of the High Command were arrested at Leliesfarm in Rivonia. This was a crushing blow to the ANC. Many of its leaders were sentenced to long prison terms. The ANC had to start afresh to build a liberation army and underground structures inside the country. This it did successfully.

In 1967, the first group of trained MK guerrillas crossed the Limpopo river — together with the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) — into what was then Rhodesia. On their way to South Africa, the Luthuli detachment (as they were called) and ZIPRA fought fierce battles against the South African and Rhodesian security forces at a Zimbabwean town called Wankie. Tambo commented at the time:

“It can be said that for the ANC this is the beginning of the armed struggle for which we have been preparing since the early 1960s… Our fighters showed how superior they are over the racist forces…”


Tambo continued to travel the world seeking support for the South African liberation struggle and the ANC. He addressed the United Nations on many occasions, met Heads of States and was interviewed thousands of times.

In one of the interviews of the early 1960s he spoke to the author, Pieter Lessing. The author described him like this: “He is an impressive man, well-spoken and well-educated. I was once more struck by the thought what excellent Africans South Africa had produced.

“Tambo was critical of all the speech-making and the wild talk of liberation and violence by African Prime Ministers and others who have never been to South Africa and who probably have no intention of ever going there. He was equally critical of all the emotionalism which the wild speeches induce. To him the struggle is more that a bandwagon for aspiring leaders, more than a pastime to be indulged in from a safe distance.”

In the meantime, Adelaide and the children joined Tambo and settled in Britain. However, Tambo’s “home” was not to be his house in London. He was always on the move, travelling the world to try and get support for the ANC. He spent much of the time in Lusaka at the ANC headquarters.

After the death of ANC President- General, Chief Luthuli, in 1967, Tambo was appointed Acting-President until he became President in 1969. In June 1985, the ANC held its Second Consultative Conference in Kabwe and Tambo was re-elected to this position. By this time, OR’s name was emblazoned in the hearts and on the lips of many South African youths. Schools, “people’s parks”, township streets and squatter camps were all named after him.

Despite bad health in the past few years, Tambo continued to make an enormous contribution to the movement. He played a very important role in drawing up the African Position on Negotiations document. The document was adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) as the Harare Declaration.

Finally, the years of stress and hard work caught up with the seventy-three year old leader. Last year in August, he suffered a stroke and spent a long time in hospital. He was discharged in April this year but until now, he has not been well enough to travel much.

In November, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo were awarded the freedom of London’s Haringey suburb. The Freedom Declaration praised the couple for the tremendous contribution they made to the struggle for freedom in South Africa during their long years of exile and residency in Haringey. OR is also due to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of the Western Cape early next year — also in recognition of his role in the struggle.

Learn and Teach magazine takes this opportunity to welcome OR back home as a dedicated, loyal, trusted, and tested leader of the people of South Africa!

In an interview with the ANC newsletter Sechaba in 1967, Tambo spoke about the ANC's Programme of Action" "Our programme of struggle is the Freedom Charter, which .... sets out the kind of South Africa we shall establish upon taking over power.

"We fights for a South Africa in which there will be no racial discrimination, no inequalities based on colour, creed or race - a non-racial democracy which recognises the essential equality between man and man.

"We shall abolish all the machinery whereby a few live and thrive on the exploitation of the many. The power of government will rest in the hands of the majority of the people... It is the people who will decide on the methods ... for putting into effect the principles set out in the Freedom Charter."


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page