The life of
Oliver Tambo


Oliver Tambo was regarded as the person responsible for holding the anti-apartheid movement together, and although humble, was an unrelenting activist, who brought the lives of black South Africans living under the apartheid regime, to world attention.

He was born on 27th October 1917 in Mbizana, a rural town in what is now the Eastern Cape, where he attended local missionary schools for his primary education, before completing his high schooling in Johannesburg.

He studied for a Bachelor of Science Degree at the University College of Fort Hare (near Alice in the Eastern Cape) in 1940, but was unable to complete his Honours degree, as he was expelled - along with Nelson Mandela, for participating in a student strike.

He returned to his former high school - St Peters College in Johannesburg, in 1942 to take up the position of mathematics and science teacher
It was during this time that he met Walter Sisulu and became very involved in the African National Congress (ANC).

Oliver Tambo, along with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, was a founding member of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944, and was appointed its first national secretary.
He was elected president of the Transvaal ANCYL in 1948, national vice president in 1949, and elected onto the Transvaal executive of the ANC in the same year.

He served on a committee that drew up the Programme of Action – a plan to make the ANC more millitant and appeal to the mass of uneducated and unskilled workers. It called for civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent resistance.

The Programme of Action was adopted in 1949.

Shortly after, he left teaching and set up South Africa’s first black legal partnership with Nelson Mandela, which soon became the hero of the poor as they took on pro-bono work - voluntarily and without payment, to help victims of apartheid laws who had little or no money to pay their legal costs. Everyone else paid by the hour!

Communism was banned in 1950.

In 1952, Oliver Tambo was one of the more than 8,500 imprisoned for peacefully refusing to obey apartheid laws during the Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws. The campaign carried on into 1953, and attracted a large number of volunteers who joined and disobeyed the laws.

During the first mass trial in South African legal history, the South African government attempted to suppress the Defiance Campaign by charging those arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act.
In 1955, Walter Sisulu, the Secretary General of the ANC was found guilty, declared to be a “Communist”, and banned. He was ordered to resign his post, whilst Oliver Tambo, who was not one of the accused, replaced him as Secretary General.

The Congress Alliance was then formed to organise the Congress of the People.
The intention was to gather the wishes of the people, for an alternative society in South Africa - a society free from the State oppression and exploitation which was prevalent at the time.
What transpired was unique and had never been done before.
The Freedom Charter, which today forms the backbone of the South African constitution, was endorsed at a mass rally held at Kliptown, Soweto, on June 26th 1955.

The Freedom Charter was regarded as a communist document by the Government, and 156 ANC and Congress leaders were arrested and charged with high treason in the epic Treason Trial in 1956.
Although Oliver Tambo had been heavily involved in the recruitment of people for the mass rally, he was later released due to lack of evidence.

He was elected Deputy President of the ANC in 1959, but was served with a five year banning order, along with many of his associates.

In response, after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Oliver Tambo was sent overseas by the ANC to rally international support against apartheid.
He settled with his family in Muswell Hill, north London, where he lived until 1990.
From small beginnings, and through his determination, the ANC acquired missions in 27 countries by 1990.
He was also influential in the establishment of the South African United Front, which had South Africa expelled from the Commonwealth in 1961.

In 1961, after the Government stifled a planned stay-at-home strike, the ANC adopted the armed struggle as part of its approach, and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the Spear of the Nation, became the military wing of the ANC.
Oliver Tambo rallied the support of several African governments to provide training and camp facilities for the ANC.

In 1967, he became Acting president of the ANC, after the death of ANC President General Chief Albert J. Luthuli, and was appointment as President at the Morogoro Conference in Tanzania in 1969.

During the 1970s, Oliver Tambo criss-crossed the world, addressing international meetings on the horrors of apartheid, and became the key figure in the ANC's Revolutionary Council (RC), after the Morogoro Conference called for supporters to “... close ranks and Intensify the Armed Struggle!"

He was re-elected President of the ANC at the Kabwe Conference in Zambia in 1985. As President, he also served as the Head of the Politico-Military Council (PMC), and as Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
He, by now, had gained huge respected on the African continent, as well as overseas, and had created an awareness that the organization could be an alternative to the Pretoria Government. He was treated as a Head of State in many parts of the world.

Oliver Tambo was regarded as the person who held the anti-apartheid movement together. He is remembered for using the customary African approach of negotiations and agreement when reaching decisions, and was a humble, yet unrelenting activist, who brought the lives of black South Africans living under the apartheid regime, to world attention.

In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke, and underwent extensive medical treatment.

He returned to South Africa in 1991 after over 3 decades in exile, and was elected National Chairperson of the ANC in July at the ANC's first legal national conference inside South Africa, held in Durban in July 1991.
He was also chairperson of the ANC's Emancipation Commission which was established in 1992.

Oliver Reginald Tambo died on April 24, 1993, aged 75, after complications from a stroke.

In his eulogy, Nelson Mandela said, "Oliver lived not because he could breathe. He lived not because blood flowed through his veins. Oliver lived not because he did all the things that all of us as ordinary men and women do. Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people."




On the 27th October, 2006, the Johannesburg International Airport, had its name changed to the OR Tambo International Airport.

The original name of Jan Smuts Airport - after the prominent South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher, was changed to Johannesburg International in 1994 after the ANC Government made a decision that South African airports should not be named after political figures.
















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