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UP: Justice Albie Sachs remembers OR Tambo's crucial role in South Africa's constitutional democracy

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UP: Justice Albie Sachs remembers OR Tambo's crucial role in South Africa's constitutional democracy

Justice Albie Sachs

24th February 2017


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Through his activism over the decades, lawyer, revolutionary and politician– Oliver Reginald Tambo– left a lasting impression on South Africa and its Constitution. In celebration of his legacy, the Centre for  Human  Rights, Faculty  of  Law,  University  of  Pretoria together  with  the Oliver  &  Adelaide  Tambo Foundation, hosted  the first  in  a  series  of  Oliver  Tambo  Centenary  Lectures on Wednesday 22 February 2017.

The  event  brought  together students,  academics  and  members  of  civil society  to  pay homage  to Tambo‟s life. Attendees were  welcomed by the University‟s Chancellor, Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Former Mayor of Ekhuruleni, Duma Nkosi – who played an instrumental role in the official renaming of Johannesburg International Airport in Tambo‟s honour– was also present.  Presenting the
lecture, retired judge of the Constitutional Court and Tambo‟s comrade- in-exile, Albie Sachs, reflected   on the  former  ANC  President‟s values, integrity   and  relevance  in  the   new constitutional order. „He was a 'natural diplomat,‟ Sachs recalled, „ he never ran away from
hard and testing questions.‟


To illustrate this,  Sachs  challenged his  audience  to  answer  three  questions centred  around  the Constitution and the inspiration behind it. The  first  question  Sachs  posed  was  to name  one  good  thing  about  a partheid. The  audience  was puzzled.  “The  one good  thing  about  apartheid...”  he jokingly  remarked“ was  that it  created  anti-Apartheid...” In a sense, he suggested, it was only through the divisions of racial segregation, that the path of Tambo– born and raised in rural Transkei
– could cross with that of Sachs – who grew up on the sandy beaches of Cape Town.

The freedom fighter
‟s second question delved into more controversial territory. He asked the crowd, “If you were to do a paternity test of the South African
Constitution, who‟s DNA would you discover?” He responded by dismissing  the allegations   that   the   constitutional   project   was   an   uneasy compromise, aimed at placating the black majority, while protecting the financial interests of the white minority.  Instead,  he  rebutted,  the  Constitution  was  a  power  sharing  mechanism,  one  that  Tambo‟s ideals proved instrumental in inspiring.
Finally, he asked “What did we fight for?” He gave a simple answer: democracy.


“Long before the Berlin Wall fell, the ANC supported multiparty democracy, ”Sachs said. “I know it seems obvious now, but back then it wasn‟t . ”Here, he made an important  comparison  between  the  ANC  and  other  political  organisations  on  the  continent.  As
neighbouring liberation movements descended into despotism and cruelty, the ANC, under Tambo‟s guidance, managed to stay
true to its egalitarian principles.

Comrade OR, as Sachs affectionately called him, shepherded the African National Congress through long years of uncertainty
and homesickness in exile. During his fifty years in the organisation, he was a role player of every key area within the party. He
was both a founding member and secretary of the ANC Youth League in 1944; general secretary of the ANC from 1952; leader of the ANC's Mission in Exile  1960; ANC  President between 1977 and 1990;  then  National  Chairperson  until  his  death in 1993. I
n  the  later  years of democracy, Tambo‟s role has been  overshadowed  by  louder,  more  populist voices  in  South  African  politics.
In  response  to  this, Sachs left  the  audience  with  an  impassioned defence  of  the  country‟s  founding  document,  remarking  that  “we  have  constitutions  because  we mistrust not only the enemy, but also ourselves.”

The first  lecture  in  the Oliver  Tambo  Centenary  Lecture  Series was  made  possible  by  the  generous support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in South Africa. A  video  recording  of  the  Oliver Tambo  Centenary Lecture  by  Justice  Albie  Sachs can  be  viewed on the Centre for Human Rights YouTube channel.


Issued by University of Pretoria


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