Oliver Tambo: A Jacana Pocket Biography

Hugh MACMILLAN, Oliver Tambo: A Jacana Pocket Biography (Johannesburg: Jacana, 2017)

HAD it not been for the Treason Trial of 1956, Oliver Tambo would almost certainly have become an Anglican priest. He was close to Trevor Huddleston and for some years was a teacher of maths at St Peter’s, although by 1951 he had completed his articles and was part of a famous legal partnership with Nelson Mandela. Like his predecessor as ANC president-general, Albert Luthuli, Tambo’s strong faith was sometimes in conflict with the demands and nature of a liberation movement. In this short biography, Hugh Macmillan concludes that Tambo was a man of high intellect, resolute but necessarily flexible, a friendly person of steely resolve – the quintessential courteous revolutionary. Throughout his political career he never lost his interest in music and the arts.

After youthful flirtation with Africanism, and even disruption of meetings, Tambo embraced the inclusive nationalism that was to underlie the 1955 Freedom Charter. The Suppression of Communism Act had been a wake-up call in the light of Martin Niemöller’s prophetic warning and by the time of the Defiance Campaign of 1953, Tambo was calling for a white Congress. Early discharge from the 1956 Treason Trial meant increasing responsibility for running the ANC and he was chairperson of the meeting that saw the Pan Africanist Congress breakaway.

Tambo left South Africa at the behest of the ANC in the fateful month of March 1960, many of the necessary travel arrangements being orchestrated by Frene Ginwala, and lived in London and Lusaka for the next three decades. He kept in close contact with Huddleston and Canon John Collins of St Paul’s. In exile he became the main diplomatic face of the ANC, although his position as president was not finally confirmed until 1977 – and he would have preferred a deputy role. He led a peripatetic life of meetings, speeches and public relations, an uphill task that was to undermine his health and hasten his death (in the same month as Chris Hani): it was 26 years before he was invited to a meeting at the Foreign Office. In the meantime he had forged important links with the Nordic countries, Sweden in particular. One intriguing meeting that should have taken place was with black consciousness leader Steve Biko in Botswana, but this was postponed and ultimately thwarted by Biko’s murder. The idea, recorded by Macmillan, that his death was related to a possible meeting with the ANC is far-fetched.

Like Luthuli, Tambo had qualms about violence and British politician Geoffrey Howe summed him up perfectly: ‘the non-violent supporter of the armed struggle’. Having been with Luthuli in Oslo when the latter received his Nobel peace prize, Tambo was embarrassed by unexpected news of the launch of armed struggle. He was subsequently kept in the dark about Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and away from Kongwa camp in Tanzania. He did, however, take responsibility for the failure of the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns, which achieved very little: unlike many ANC leaders he was self-critical and able to accept criticism. He was one of few in the ANC leadership who respected Hani’s opinions and saved him from further punishment.

His major contribution to the ANC was to hold together its broad church under the testing circumstances of exile and to rein in, to a limited extent, unrealistic military expectations and a growing and sinister MK security apparatus that questioned his revolutionary credentials. But without early excuses relating to Tanzania, he fell woefully short in relation to the Angolan camps in the early 1980s where ill treatment and executions were allowed to continue under the malign oversight of Mzwai Piliso and Andrew Masondo. The stark revelations of the Stuart Commission (James Stuart aka Hermanus Loots) apparently left Tambo incredulous and exposed his lack of military insight. His influence was brought to bear only in 1985 at the Kabwe conference where torture was outlawed and due process established. But for five years the ANC had reneged on its Geneva Convention obligations. Hani blamed Tambo’s tentative approach for this and it remains a massive and largely unacknowledged blot on the ANC’s history.

Tambo was solidly behind the growing inclusivity of the ANC marked by its Morogoro (1969) and Kabwe (1985) conferences, gradually steering the movement towards realisable political goals and away from military fantasy. The Nkomati Accord of 1984 between Mozambique and South Africa was a massive setback, but three heart attacks in the 1980s did not prevent him engaging in frenetic activity at the end of the decade as the ANC began to engage openly with South African civil society and covertly with the government. Tambo’s diplomatic and political skills came to the fore. He was closely involved with the construction of constitutional guidelines, arrangements for Operation Vula, and the framing of the Harare Declaration. The human resources at his disposal were often found wanting. At this point Johnny Makatini, ANC representative in the USA, died; and Tambo was faced by the upheaval and internal strife created by Winnie Mandela’s abhorrent behaviour.

The centenary of Tambo’s birth falls this October and Macmillan’s measured assessment of his career will help correct any ANC tendency to distort his legacy. He was a man of principle, a social democrat who emphasised inclusivity and civil rights. His life is a measure of a calamitous decline in the quality of South African political leadership.