Deepening Democracy through Access to Information
Home / Recommendations RSS ← Back

Email this article

separate emails by commas, maximum limit of 4 addresses

Verification Image. Please refresh the page if you cannot see this image.

Sponsored by


Embed Video


Towards 100 years of selfless struggle (October 2011)

31st October 2011


Font size: -+

For anyone to fully appreciate Oliver Reginald Tambo’s role in our socio-political make up, one needs to grasp the evolution of the ANC between 1912 and the 1940s when O.R. Tambo entered the political stage as the youth leader.

In order to appreciate this perspective we need to take a cursory look into the early South African Native National Congress (SANNC) - later the African National Congress (ANC). This was a movement formed by a leadership drawn from the aspirant members of the African proto-middle classes: lawyers, doctors, church ministers, landowners and traders.


A glance at the leadership elected at the inaugural conference is a pointer. The first President, John Langalibalele Dube was an American trained educationist, church minister and newspaper editor. The Secretary General, Solomon Plaatjie was a newspaper editor and an author. The Treasurer General, Pixley ka Isaka Seme was a Columbia/Oxford and London trained lawyer.

The newly launched SANNC had to immediately deal with two draconian pieces of legislation, the discriminatory labour legislation of 1911 and the Natives Land Act of 1913. The latter Sol Plaatjie described as follows:


“Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913 the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

The failure of the deputations and memoranda to Her Majesty resulted in a massive decline in the ANC during the period of the 1930s. The election of Dr Xuma in 1940, a period during in which the African Mineworkers Union and the ANC Youth League were formed, marked the beginning of a process of the renewal and radicalisation of the ANC. This is the period when OR Tambo comes to the fore.

Oliver Reginald Tambo, born into a modest peasant household in Mbizana travelled a long difficult journey from when he was part of the formation of the ANCYL in 1944. He received his education from two mission schools, Holy Cross in Flagstaff and St. Peter’s in Johannesburg where he matriculated - and later taught - in 1938. He was awarded a scholarship to the University College of Fort Hare where he graduated with a B.Sc degree in 1941. He remained in the College to do a teaching diploma but was expelled during the 1942 student strike. St Peter’s allowed him to take up the post of a mathematics and science teacher, where he remained for five years (1943-1947).

Oliver Reginald Tambo, together with his contemporaries, Lembede, Mbatha, Mda, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, became a founder member of the ANCYL. These young people who adopted the programme of action in the ANCYL, lobbied the ANC to adopt the programme of action in its 1949 national conference. This programme entailed, in the main, disobedience against the apartheid regime. Eight youth leaguers were elected to the NEC of the ANC in the 1949 conference, where Walter Sisulu was elected the Secretary General.

When Walter Sisulu was served with a banning order in 1954 Comrade Oliver Tambo became the acting Secretary General. In 1958 he was elected Deputy President General alongside Duma Nokwe, who was elected the Secretary General. The ANC decided to launch the anti-pass campaign on 31 March 1960, only to be upstaged by the Pan Africanist Congress ten days earlier - leading to the Sharpeville massacre.

The banning of the liberation movement thereafter started a new chapter for Comrade Oliver Tambo. His task became that of mobilising the international solidarity and to establish ANC infrastructure in exile. This was to prove the words of the President-General, Chief Albert Luthuli, true when he said:

“The quality of our Deputy President, Oliver Tambo’s speech makes me very happy - even if I and others in the leadership of the ANC were to die, there are young men like Oliver Tambo who are now ready to take responsibility for the ANC”

The banning of the liberation movement led the ANC to resolve that the non-violent path could not be sustained. (Thereby) created a military wing to prepare for the mode of struggle initially based on sabotage. (And) On 16 December 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe, with Mandela as Commander-in-Chief, announced its existence with a manifesto and attacks on Government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.”

Oliver Reginald Tambo, became the architect of the ANC’s liberation army and porter of its international solidarity infrastructure, which made the ANC an integral part of the network of liberation movements in the African continent. Resultantly, the struggle for freedom was intensified in Tanzania, Algeria, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and many other parts of the continent.

Propaganda, ensuring the movement keeps contact with the people, was an important part of the intensification of the struggle. An effective underground movement was equally important for the movement to increase the pool it would recruit from. Operating from Tanzania and later Zambia MK operatives had to go through a hostile terrain to be deployed in the battlefront.

The impatience among the trained cadres, keen to engage the enemy, led to the agreement to infiltrate through the then Southern Rhodesia in 1967, what is known as the Wankie and Spolilo encounter with the enemy. This was a bold and risky initiative, which further encouraged the desire among cadres to engage the enemy at home.

The rumblings in the camps that came in the aftermath of these expeditions led to the Morogoro Conference where delegates were allowed to be as critical as possible. Following the severe criticism that the leadership was subjected to the NEC resigned en masse to give delegates space to elect new leadership. The Morogoro Conference changed the ANC in two ways: first, it opened membership to all races and, also adopted a militant programme of action.

In order to fully understand the Strategy and Tactics one must read the political alliance report of Comrade OR (as he was affectionally known) to this conference, in which he set the agenda as follows:

“The vital and central task of the African National Congress today is the intensification of armed struggle for the overthrow of the white fascist regime and the liberation of our motherland. Today armed struggle together with other forms of struggle constitute the weapons of the oppressed in our country against the oppressor. How can we intensify the revolution? What forms of organisation can ensure maximum mobilisation of resources at our disposal? What are the motive forces of our struggle and their potential? What strategy and tactics are to be employed?”

The Strategy and Tactics that emerged out of the Morogoro Conference characterised the international context as that of “transition to the socialist system, of the breakdown of the colonial system as a result of national liberation and socialist revolutions, and the fight for social and economic progress by the people of the whole world.”

Describing the relationship between the political and the military, the Strategy and Tactics explains that “when we talk of revolutionary armed struggle, we are talking of political struggle by means which include the use of military force even though once force as a tactic is introduced it has the most far-reaching consequences on every aspect of our activities. It is important to emphasise this because our movement must reject all manifestations of militarism, which separates armed people’s struggle from its political context.”

Under the leadership of O.R Tambo, this clarity kept the ANC intact in trying conditions. It assisted the ANC articulate our struggle and the four pillars of our revolution, the armed struggle, mass mobilisation, underground and international solidarity against apartheid. The momentum that took the struggle to heights in the 1980s was a combination of all these pillars and the coordination thereof.

The rent boycott and a series of strikes in 1987 drove the Afrikaner capital to Dakar to test the possibility of a negotiated settlement. It is the total impact of these pillars that forced the nationalist party into negotiating power away, between 1990 and 1994. Looked through biblically eyes, Oliver Reginald Tambo is like Moses who led the people to freedom; and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela the Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land.

The question, however, is not what OR did and achieved, nor what his life and times are about. The question that must be confronted is whether we are upholding the ideals the ANC stood for under the leadership of the Comrade OR Tambo. An appropriate premise is a reminder of the core values of the ANC, namely, selflessness, honesty, respect for leadership, unity, humility, and discipline.

The ANC must remain the leader in building a non-racial and non-sexist society. It must remain a mass and a multi-class movement it has always been. The ANC has always led and must continue its leadership of society. A divided ANC loses the moral authority to lead and unite society. The integrity of individual leaders of the ANC determines the extent to which society can continue trusting our movement. No leader has a private life. We must continue engaging various structures and organisations in society, even when there are no elections.

The ANC must be the first to talk against corruption, real and perceived. We must support institutions set to fight corruption. The ANC must shed the perception of it being corrupt through taking a tough stance against corruption, irrespective of who is implicated or involved. We must instill and enforce discipline and enable members to appreciate that no revolution can succeed without discipline. Cadres of our movement must always appreciate that militancy without discipline is anarchy.

We must be guided by the following principles:

* Discipline must not be used to settle political differences. However, in the same breath, ill-discipline must not be veiled as political differences.
* Past errors must not be used to justify continued ill-discipline. Deviant behaviour in the run-up to Polokwane must not be elevated into a norm, but an anomaly that must be corrected.
* Where transgression occurs the movement must act.
* We must all work for unity and cohesion.

The 53rd National Conference of the ANC will, among other things, elect leadership. It is not about succession as there is heir to the throne. Leadership must be discussed and assessed by branches of the ANC, as opposed to narrow circles that are well resourced and tend to buy their access to power. We must liberate the branches of the ANC to appreciate their power and their rights. Our leadership must be assessed in terms of its performance as a collective, and as individual leaders. It should never be about regionalism and friendship.

Comrades must be made to understand that the ANC has culture and traditions and nominations are made at an appropriate time. By this we wish not ban discussions and assessment of leadership. Oliver Reginald Tambo was a thorough leader who paid attention to detail. As Comrade Thabo Mbeki noted:

“OR was an intellectual in the best meaning of that word. He was a person of reason, a person of rational thought and rational action… a person who could deal with both the concrete and the abstract, the specific, the particular and the general; between tactics and strategy - that dialectical interaction...”

As we move towards the policy conference our branches must bear this in mind, be engaged and empowered to participate in policy debates. The aptly termed nationalisation debate is but one example. We must understand that this policy debate is beyond proponents and opponents. The NGC directed the NEC to look into a number of case studies and analyse how other countries handle the state ownership of mineral resources. The research team has completed eleven case studies and the two remaining are China and Malaysia. The discussion will be scientific and emotional.

Comrade OR invested a fortune in strengthening the alliance. He made us understand that the alliance is not just an agreement signed by leaders in boardrooms, however one forged in the trenches of struggle. The tripartite alliance is an alliance between the national liberation movement and the two working class formations.

These partners do not melt into an alliance and lose their class character and ideological outlook. They understand the National Democratic Revolution as the minimum programme. It is the preparedness to compromise that has made our unique alliance to work. We must continue working for the unity and cohesion of the alliance.

By: Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary General


To subscribe email or click here
To advertise email or click here

Comment Guidelines

About is a product of Creamer Media.

Other Creamer Media Products include:
Engineering News
Mining Weekly
Research Channel Africa

Read more


We offer a variety of subscriptions to our Magazine, Website, PDF Reports and our photo library.

Subscriptions are available via the Creamer Media Store.

View store


Advertising on is an effective way to build and consolidate a company's profile among clients and prospective clients. Email

View options
Free daily email newsletter Register Now