South Africa’s quiet freedom fighter

Oliver Tambo statue at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg has been unveiled. PHOTO: Siphelele Dludla/ANA

ON SUNDAY, 27 March 1960, two men set off on a perilous 1 400km journey by car from Cape Town to Johannesburg. It was six days after the massacre of 69 people in the East Rand township of Sharpeville – and the security apparatuses of the apartheid state were ruthlessly wielding their weapons of suppression against opponents of National Party policies.

One man was black – the other white. One was a reckless critic of apartheid. The other a deep thinker and careful planner. Oliver Tambo was the driver of the vehicle – the chauffeur. He was dressed in a white uniform, cap and gloves. With him was Ronald Segal, the editor of ‘Africa South’, a liberal journal.

One of the new generation of ANC members, Tambo’s instruction was to flee South Africa, in anticipation of a post-Sharpeville crackdown by the apartheid authorities, and to set up an ANC “Mission in Exile. After a quick goodbye to his wife Adelaide and children Thembi and Dali, in the East Rand township of Wattville, he set off on his journey.

The almost four-hour drive to the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland went without incident. A young journalist named Frene Ginwala was the organiser in chief of his journey out of the Protectorate. It involved organising travel documents for him via the Indian consul in Kenya – and by the time these came, Tambo had touched down in Malawi, and had flown to Tanganyika and Tunisia, before travelling to Rome.

The ANC’s new “roving ambassador” was ready to begin his mission for a non-racial, democratic South Africa….
Tambo was one of a group of ANC members, who through the formation of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) had dragged an reluctant and moribund parent body into a new era – where action to the point of breaking apartheid laws would have to take precedence over petitions and delegations to move South Africa’s black people in the direction of freedom.

The Youth League’s manifesto, compiled by, among others, Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Peter Mda, Jordan Ngubane and Tambo showed the typical optimism of “young bloods”.

“Africa’s cause must triumph”, it declared in big, bold capital letters. And it added: “We believe that the national liberation of Africans will be achieved by Africans themselves… We believe in the unity of all Africans from the Mediterranean Sea in the North to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the South… and that Africans must speak with one voice.”

But in setting up his “Mission in Exile” Tambo quickly realised that if apartheid were to be defeated, help would be needed from many sources in many countries.

He quickly showed that his big strength was his ability to resolve different – and, often, difficult – problems faced by the organisation.
Initially seen as being uncharismatic and overly conservative, he proved to have an analytical mind and the ability to see and understand other points of view within the ANC – especially the ANC in exile.

Thus, Albie Sachs described him as a “natural democrat”. Bridgitte Mabanda was enchanted by his ability to see men and women as equals. Jacob Zuma admired his “rural wisdom”. And Jonas Gwanga was impressed by his love of music.
But even with these diplomatic skills, he faced a difficult task….
In the beginning, Tambo’s biggest problem was the disinterest of big Western powers, most notably the United Kingdom and the United States.
When the ANC started an armed struggle against the apartheid regime, both the UK and the US condemned the organisation as a tool of communism and the then Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher described the ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”.  Realising he was in for the long haul, Tambo showed exemplary patience in explaining the ANC’s position on issues such as violence and the South African economy. In 1982, responding to a question about the ANC’s relationship with the Soviet Union, Tambo patiently explained: “The Soviet Union has no influence on the ANC any more than Canada has. What has really happened is that we found ourselves, decades ago, fighting against racism – and relatively weak.

“We went in search of friends, to Canada, the United States, Europe, India and elsewhere. Some received us well. Some were lukewarm. Some turned us down. The Soviet Union gave support. So did other countries – Sweden, for example. Sweden gave us assistance without strings, except that no funds may be used to buy guns. The Soviet Union does not have to say that because it gives us the guns. The supposed stigma of getting assistance from the Soviet Union has no meaning whatsoever in Southern Africa.

There would be no assistance for anyone without these weapons. That’s what ordinary people think. Where would we be without that assistance? Could we go to Washington?”. But by and large, ordinary South Africans were given very little information about the struggles of Tambo and the banned ANC in exile.
And then, in November1985, Tambo suddenly appeared on the front page of the Cape Times newspaper.

Its editor, Tony Heard, travelled to London to conduct an interview with the ANC leader – and published it, much to the chagrin of its proprietors. (He was sacked soon afterwards.) Readers of the Cape Times were provided with an intriguing insight into the thinking of Tambo….

One of the major issues for South Africans, fed an almost daily reading and watching diet of “rooi gevaar”, was the ANC’s relationship with Communism.
“It is true that the ANC has members of the Communist Party,” Tambo said. “There has been an overlapping of membership from the beginning.

“But ANC members who are also members of the Communist Party make a very clear distinction between these two independent bodies,” he said. “We cooperate a lot, the ANC is accepted by the Communist party as leading the struggle. There is absolute loyalty to that position. It is often suggested that the ANC is controlled by the Communists. That has never been true.

As for the charge that we are controlled by the Soviet Union, that is also propaganda. There is a lot of exaggeration about terrorism,” he said.
Questioned about what future he saw for whites in South Africa, he said: “All of us in the ANC, have always considered that whites, like ourselves, belong to our country. We took the earlies opportunity to dispel the notion that we were fighting to drive the whites out. We have asked whites to join us in the struggle to get rid of the tensions that come with the apartheid system.”
Not everything that Tambo did met with the universal approval of his allies overseas. In 1990, he returned to South Africa after 30 years in exile – and, surprisingly, called for the ANC’s sanction policies to be re-evaluated. The British Anti-Apartheid Movement leader, Trevor Huddlestone, immediately voiced his disagreement, and instead called for sanctions to be maintained.

Labour MP and AAM member Bob Hughes backed Huddlestone. He warned that there should not be a “too hasty” acceptance of the process towards democracy. He said it would be difficult to sustain any new action against the apartheid government if sanctions were relaxed – and it would be very difficult to re-impose them.

But his warning was ignored….

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising in both South Africa and the UK in sportswriting, politics and features