Address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the Memorial Lecture of Oliver Reginald Tambo, at the Omar Bongo University, in Libreville, Gabon

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10 Mar 2017

Principal and Vice Chancellor,

and others leaders of this historic University,

Members of Council,

Members of Senate and the Academic Staff,

Deputy Minister T Xasa,

Ambassador N Magaqa


Members of the Administration and workers,

Fellow Africans lend me your ear, the Premier institution of higher learning in Gabon, Omar Bongo University has instructed me to be part of their efforts to keep memory of those sons and daughters of our continent who contributed in our efforts to deal with historical injustice alive.  

Specifically the Rector of the University has instructed me to speak about Oliver Reginald Tambo. A man who strode the globe like an African colossal. However, in speaking about this great revolutionary and statesman of our continent, we cannot mention or speak about him outside other great statesmen from the continent.

Amongst those leaders we can cite the following: Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana; Madibo Keita of Mali; Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal; Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria; Augustinho Neto of Angola; Edwardo Mondlane and Samora Machel of Mozambique; Tousaint Louvertue of Haiti; Patrice Lumumba of Democratic Republic of Congo; Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein of Egypt; Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Sir Seretse Khama of Botswana to name but a few.

These leaders amongst others were characterized by the following:

a)  An unwavering commitment to serve the people of our continent with no expectation of any personal benefit.

b)  A sustained determination to conduct themselves in a manner that communicate a message that never betray the cause of freedom.

c)  the commitment, to its fullest extent, of the entirety of their capacity and personal energy to pursue the objectives of the Revolution;

d)  One of the abiding strengths of these leaders has always been to be truthful to the people and never to hide their shortcomings or the extent of the challenges they face, to find better ways of improving their work and standing as leaders in their countries and the continent.

e)  In their approach to their country's and continent’s problems, they have always striven to identify those issues that would result in sustainable solutions.

f)    Steadfastness to principle has been one of the defining characteristics of these leaders.

g)  They have shunned short-cuts to the solution of complex social issues: to pursue what is considered correct even when such ideas were not popular.

h)  They represented unity, revolutionaries who spoke, lived and worked for unity in all their lives.

I am certain that all of you present here will have understood that what I have just said about this leadership demonstrate in clear terms the type of leadership that any period of revolutionary transformation needs.

With the benefit of hindsight we can say without fear of contradiction that these leaders have discharged their historical assignment without fail, under circumstances not of their choice.

With their efforts we can say this, gradually, step by step, our continent is proceeding further away from its painful past.

We, its citizens, who are hard at work to change our circumstances may not easily notice the steady transformation that informs all aspects of our continent.

It is a past of the denial of freedom to the majority, gross violation of human rights and repression, of entrenched sexism, a past of high levels of crime, violence and corruption.

This generation is charged with the responsibility to recognise the reality that as a people of this continent we do indeed share this common legacy. Whether our colonial masters were French, British, Portuguese or Spanish.

Having recognised the challenges of our time, we had to make the determination that this was a legacy that we did not deserve and we are committed to reverse.

In discharging this responsibility you would have heard the regular refrain repeated constantly by influential voices in our various countries and in western Capitals that Africa’s challenges today are not at all connected to its past but a result of incapability, mismanagement and corruption.

In moments like these we should recall the words of an eminent African scholar Pixley ka Isaka Seme when he warned us in 1906, he said;   

“I am an African, and I set my pride in my race over against a hostile public opinion”.

Nothing is said about the rules of international trade that are designed to favour and benefit the former colonial empires.

This argument says that fifty five years ago, when most African countries gained their independence, the slate was wiped clean, the challenges that the continent face today, are entirely of its own making. 


The legacy of the impact of colonial and imperialist system in terms of the dispossession of the indigenous African majority and the destruction of its communities, resulting in deculturation, the radical weakening of any sense of African identity, and the destruction of the traditional value system have got nothing to do with the past at all according to these apologists.

Let me return to the person the Rector has instructed me to talk about Oliver Tambo.

Amongst his attributes was also a determined and principled internationalist.

In this context he led the South African national liberation movement, particularly but not only the ANC, to establish firm relations of solidarity with the rest of the national and democratic movement elsewhere in Africa, and throughout the world.

A former Nigerian diplomat who interacted with OR Tambo for many years has this to say about his leadership,

“Oliver Tambo belonged to a remarkable generation of South African leaders on whom history was to place a stern destiny. It entailed a sort of choice that history rarely call upon leaders to make. In the case of Oliver and his circle, the choice was either to leave their people to perpetual thrall to slavery or risk everything to bring an end to slavery. The challenge called for heroism of an exceptional order and it was this challenge that Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and many others embraced.

“Infact as I got to know Oliver better, I came to a conclusion that no man ever wore a great destiny with more humility and dignity or style”. Emeka Anyaoku.

Having describe the leadership of Oliver Tambo and his generation, what then is to be done to build on their work?

To answer this question, this generation of leaders must amongst others do the following:

1)  We must work doubly hard to create conditions that our youth must stay in institutions of learning until they complete the necessary programme.

2)  Expanding and modernising the production base of the economy through consistently high rates of investment, resulting in sustained high economic growth rates.

3)   Achieving the objectives of the emancipation of women and gender equality;

4)   Systematically addressing the challenge of the empowerment of the youth. This is our future. Thus future of humanity. 

5)   Altering the structure of our economy to end its historical relationship with the developed world as essentially an exporter of raw materials;

6)   Creating the material base to underwrite the achievement of national unity, and patriotism.

7)   Achieving the sustained and sustainable socio-economic improvement for our people this will result in changing both the life styles in these communities and the prevalent value systems.

8)   Radical reduction of the levels of poverty and inequality.

To conclude, for me how the generation of President Tambo conducted themselves during their lifetime reminds me of a letter that a German scholar of note, Karl Marx wrote to his father in 1837, he said the following:

“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.

“History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy”.

Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)

We remember them with honour and affection as true Patriots.

Thank you for your attention.