A Look at Oliver Tambo’s Political Career, Life and Legacy

Many historians today would agree that Oliver Tambo lived an inspirational life that others should work towards emulating. Without a doubt, the anti-apartheid activist and politician was one of the finest leaders produced by the African National Congress (ANC) who fought tooth and nails to ensure that black South Africans were not treated as second class citizens in their own country. Tambo was the leader of the ANC between 1967 and 1991 and he practically dedicated his life to this struggle and although he was not alive to see his dream become reality, his role will forever be remembered.

His Education Prepared Him For His Political Legacy

Oliver Tambo was born Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo on the 27th of October 1917 in the small village of Nkantolo, near Bizana in eastern Pondoland, what is now known today as the Eastern Cape. He was born into a polygamous family where his father was a traditionalist and his mother was a Christian.

Despite being born to an illiterate father, Oliver Tambo attended and excelled in school right from a young age. He attended Anglican and Methodist missionary schools (Holy Cross Mission school and St. Peters Johannesburg) for his early education, graduating in 1938 as one of the best students before earning a scholarship to enroll at the University of Fort Hare.

It is said that he wanted to study medicine but because very few schools in the country were accepting black students, he was left with no option but to study physics and maths, gaining a BSc in 1941. A few years later, after having gotten deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle as he worked as a teacher, Tambo elected to study law by correspondence through Unisa in order to have a chance at fighting the racially discriminatory laws in the country.

A Look At Oliver Tambo’s Political Journey, Exile and Legacies

Pioneering the ANC Youth League

One of the most important legacies of Oliver Tambo is the founding of the youth wing of the ANC – African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Having completed his education and began working as a teacher, he formed the ANCYL alongside Ashby Solomzi Mda, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Anton Muziwakhe Lambede – the later who became the pioneer president of the youth body – on April 2, 1944.

As other prominent South African youths joined the ANCYL, their aim was to engender mass participation of youths in the movement against the injustice in the country. The formation of the ANCYL caused a stir in the polity with their militant-like approach and four years later, the National Party dethroned the United Party as the country’s ruling party in 1948.

Oliver Tambo served as the ANCYL’s first National Secretary and would later go on to become a member of the National Executive in 1948 before moving to serve as Secretary-General of the ANC after the incumbent Sisulu was banned by the South African government.

Teaming Up With Nelson Mandela

In seeking to fight for a better South Africa, Tambo teamed up with like-minded youths, one of whom was Nelson Mandela as both of them attended the University of Fort Hare and more so, came from the same region. Together, they formed the ANCYL (as mentioned earlier) and established a law firm in Johannesburg (in 1952) which was the first by black South Africans in the country. They were both arrested in 1956, alongside other party members – 156 people – and charged for treason. The trial lasted for five years during which Tambo was exiled to London. It eventually ended in 1961 and they were acquitted and cleared of all charges.

Oliver Tambo

Going on Political Exile

He became the Deputy President of the ANC and was moved to London, England by the party, following the banning of the ANC in 1960, and while there, Tambo played a critical role in intimating the international community of the segregation, injustice, and oppression the black people of South Africa were suffering at the hands of the white-controlled government. He reached out to other South African youths leaving in diaspora – asking them to join the cause and oppose the apartheid state.

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Tambo used his excellent lobbying skills to attract young and vibrant minds like Thabo Mbeki to the struggle who went on to play a major role in the advancement of their agenda. He was never permanently settled in London, even though his family was there. Tambo also set up camp in Lusaka, Zambia, (who had just gained independence in 1964) – with support from the then Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda – where he received ANC leaders and other international delegates.

His Achievements as ANC President

In 1967, after the death of the President of the ANC, Albert Luthuli, Tambo became the Acting President. In this position, he was able to keep the ANC together even though he was exiled from the country. His efforts in this regard can not be overemphasized as he was able to build a strong and united ANC outside the shores of the country – this was despite the persecution of ANC members in the country at the time. He attracted support from some European powers which subsequently exerted pressure on the South African government to end apartheid rule.

Organizing A Revolutionary Army

As ANC acting president, Oliver Tambo relentlessly sought and pleaded for the support of the international governments in ending apartheid rule in the country through sanctions and economic boycott. However, top Europen powers, including the United States of America continuously paid deaf ears to these pleas. This pushed Tambo and other leaders of the ANC to seek the help of the Soviet Union in raising a revolutionary army. This unit, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (also referred to as MK), became the militant wing of the ANC whose purpose was to fight against the South African government.

The MK was responsible for several violent attacks in the country, most of which resulted in the loss of several civilian lives. Tambo explained that it was the only option available to the ANC in their attempt to end the apartheid regime in the country.

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Returning to South Africa

After more than 30 years in exile, Oliver Tambo returned to South Africa on December 13, 1990, thanks to the unbanning of the ANC by the South African government headed by President F.W. de Klerk in February 1990. This ushered in new dawn as efforts to abolish apartheid in the country intensified. His performance in the role as the head of the political party was, however, reduced due to the stroke he had suffered in 1989. This propelled him to hand over the role of President of the ANC to Mandela in 1991, as the special position of National Chairman was then created for him.

See Also: Facts You Should Know About Azania: South Africa’s Proposed Name

How Did Oliver Tambo Die?

Oliver Tambo passed away on the 24th of April 1993 after suffering complications from a stroke. He died almost exactly a year before the country held its first democratic elections.

Tambo was accorded a state funeral that was graced by friends of the anti-apartheid struggle as well as by heads of state from the international community. His remains were buried in Benoni, Gauteng and his grave was declared a National Heritage site.

Andile Smith
Andile Smith
Andile provides articles on anything from Politics, Sports, History and entertainment to funny, creepy and weird. His passion for writing allows him to take what is ordinary and transform it into a real masterpiece. He's a true storyteller with a passion for tech and literature
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