The month of May is celebrated in South Africa as Africa Month, and this year the theme, ‘The Year of O.R. Tambo: Building a Better Africa and a Better World’, recognises the vision of the great anti-apartheid revolutionary, who would have turned 100 in October.
While the name O.R. Tambo is now synonymous with jet setting travellers, it is really his commitment to the fight for a democratic South Africa that O.R., as he was often referred to, should be known for. To some extent his early life mirrored that of the late Nelson Mandela. Both men attended Fort Hare University, from which they were both expelled for their participation in a strike at the university. Mandela and Tambo were also both founding members of the ANC Youth League, and later members of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. They also had a close and personal and business relationship, forming Mandela and Tambo in 1952, the only all black African law firm in the country at the time. But in 1960, Tambo and Mandela’s lives took different paths: with the government banning the ANC, Mandela was forced to go underground, with Tambo, the then Deputy President of the ANC, going into exile in England.
Tambo remained abroad until 1990, when the South African government eventually unbanned the ANC. While in exile Tambo continued his work in earnest, becoming the tenth president of the ANC in 1967 after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, a position he held until 1991, when Nelson Mandela took over the leadership of the organisation.
Having returned to South Africa Tambo gave the opening address at the 48th National ANC Conference that took place in Durban in July 1991. It was the first national conference of the ANC to take place since the banning of the ANC, some 31 years previously.
Having suffered two strokes already, Tambo declined to stand for a position at the conference, but despite his poor health Tambo still went into work every day and continued to address public meetings.
On the morning of the 24th April 1993, Oliver Reginald Tambo passed away after suffering a fatal heart attack. His epitaph, reads, in his own words:
It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where there will be neither Whites nor Blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity