A great giant who strode the globe like a colossus has fallen. The gentle voice whose measure voice of reason shook the throne of tyrants has been silenced. Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people. Nelson Mandela at Oliver Tambos’ funeral, 1993.
2017 marks the centenary celebration of Oliver Reginald Tambo, the longest serving president of the African National Congress who steered the anti-Apartheid struggle through thirty years of exile. He was also a Lawyer, Co-founder of the ANC Youth League, Secretary General and Deputy President of the ANC and Head of the ANC’s Mission in Exile.
Born on the 27th of October 1917, it has for long been a tradition to celebrate his legacy on the day of his birth. Just short of a year ago, in recognition of October as ‘Oliver Tambo Month’, President Jacob Zuma called on the ANC to “use the next 12 months leading to [his] centenary… to draw the best lessons from his life and to understand his rare qualities.” As a result, the year 2017 was declared the year of Oliver Tambo, a call to remember and give the deserved recognition to this hero who sacrificed three decades of his life for the freedom of South Africa.
After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Tambo was sent abroad by the organisation to lead the military resistance and seek support for the struggle against apartheid. As acting president from 1967 to 1969 and president from 1969- 1991, he managed the growing number of ANC exiles and the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) military camps (the armed wing of the ANC).
While abroad, he also raised funds for the organisation and set up ANC offices in different countries. Tambo explained the struggle against apartheid to the world, mobilising support for the struggle like had never been done before in the history of the organisation. As a result, he got a lot of support from both Eastern and Western Europe even though the two regions had opposing ideas. He was able to keep the ANC together and ensure that it remained a formidable force on the political arena even though he was in exile for most of his time as president. After the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Tambo and his family returned to a soon to be free South Africa.
His dedication to the struggle and hard work eventually led to Tambos’ health deteriorating, he refused to take time to rest in spite of suffering from bouts of illness. He sadly died in 1993, a year before democracy finally came in South Africa.
Communities across South Africa are celebrating the year of O.R Tambo. As part of the celebrations of Oliver Tambo’s centenary, the South African Reserve Bank, along with South African Mint and the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation launched the Oliver Tambo centenary coins. On the 27th of October 2017, former president Thabo Mbeki will also be delivering the OR Tambo memorial lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in honour of his priceless contribution to the struggle for freedom.
The Oliver Tambo International Airport unveiled a 2.5 metre statue of O.R Tambo on the 19th of October 2017 in honour of the struggle icon. A sculpture of Oliver Tambo also stands at the forefront of The Long March To Freedom procession at Fountains Valley in Pretoria alongside stalwarts, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. This indeed is a befitting and timely tribute to such a giant in the struggle for freedom.