Address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa on the occasion of the Oliver Tambo Memorial lecture at Mbizana Youth Centre

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27 Oct 2015

Programme Director

Leadership present

Ladies and gentlemen

Comrades and friends

Members of the Media

Today is an important date in human unstoppable quest for freedom and democracy.

It is a day when one who personifies such humankind’s best values was born. His name Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo.  Machi, Goba

The year of his birth co-incided with the great events in the history of humanity. Amongst them we can cite the following:

  1. Sinking of Mendi, once more our people true to their tradition demonstrated bravery in the face of death. Bravery that even shocked the captain of the ship.
  2. The Bolshevik revolution that change the direction of human development.

The man was shaped by his rural surroundings, as a boy, a teacher, a scientist, a lawyer, a diplomat, a revolutionary intellectual and internationalist, a fighting force, a unifier. The greatness itself, the colossus, Tambo dala kade bemkhwahlaza; Diza dala kade bemqonngqotha!

Paying tribute to this great leader of our people on Sunday, evening President Jacob Zuma said the following;

“Things had to change. The external had to become the main centre of our movement. And indeed that happen. President Tambo became the glue that hold the many facets of the ANC together during the difficult period. He became the capable pastor to all the strends of the ANC broad church. He was able to do this because of his character; he was disciplined and highly principled.”

No chapter will ever be written without the reference to OR Tambo, whether before him joining the ANC or after. He has been this centre of attraction as an exampler, a perfect team player.

The African National Congress has dedicated October, the birth month of President Oliver Reginald Tambo to celebrate a life of one of the greatest amongst that generation of great freedom fighters.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo and his generation fought a noble battle and lived their lives in pursuit of a better life for all. The democracy which we enjoy is the sweet fruit of their lives of struggle and sacrifice.

In his lifetime, he neither sought nor wielded his authority by virtue of office. He was ever ready to draw others into leadership. And he never ask of others what he was not prepared to do himself.

His greatness as a leader derived from his humility and his ingrained belief in and respect for collective leadership. He knew and taught us that wisdom comes from sharing insights and listening to and learning from each other. He was always the unifier, never a divider where others of us would speak a hasty word or act in anger, he was the patient one, seeking to heal and bring together.

Oliver Reginald Tambo was part of a generation that spearheaded the campaign for the formation of the African National Congress Youth League in 1944.

Growing in the ranks of our movement and became a leader.

Around 1959, the leadership of our movement at the time, anticipating the banning of our organization decided to send out of the country its best sons and daughters to mobilise the international community for the solidarity with our struggle. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the subsequent actions by the apartheid government confirmed the insight of our movement.

With the passing on of the President General Chief Albert Mvimbi Luthuli in 1967, he had to act as a President.

Convening a milestone conference in Morogoro, in 1969, which was to be a guiding light of the movement for decades to come.

That conference amongst others adopted what became known as four pillars of our revolution. These were the following:

  • International Solidarity.
  • Mass mobilization.
  • Political Underground and
  • Armed struggle.

Amongst the four, mass mobilization was key, not with standing the importance of others. OR understood that the success or the failure of any revolution depends on the masses of the people.

The current challenges faced by our society particularly in relation to higher education demands of all involved to apply their minds as to which direction we want to go.

The challenges highlighted by the youth in higher education institutions is reflective of the resilient fault line of inequality. The struggle they waged is a noble one.

For over half-a-century Oliver Tambo was a central actor in all these processes.


Character of our society.

To grow up in South Africa was to be aware of disparity in every aspect of your life, every last cell of your being. It was to contemplate fate—the fate of being born this color or that, to have life determined by that reality. It was to know that our world was nothing more than a distortion, a hall of mirrors pretending to be real. And yet how would we emerge from it? Who would bring clarity, and how would it come?

Oliver Tambo and his generation find our society characterized by the following, amongst others:

  • The legacy of the impact of the most pervasive colonial and imperialist system in terms of the dispossession of the black majority. Which resulted in destruction of these communities.
  • The imposition of a capitalist system of property relations across the board, originally exclusively for the benefit of the white minority, which has nevertheless educated our entire population, both black and white, to accept the capitalist value system as the only relevant value system which should inform all social behaviour;
  • A predominantly landless, propertyless and unskilled black majority, constituting more than 85% of our population, which depends for its livelihood on employment in the public and private sectors, but much of which is ‘unemployable’ because it does not have the skills required by a modern economy and society;
  • An educational system that was consciously designed to produce an African majority which would have no skills and impetus to enable it to carry out more than clerical and manual tasks;
  • The absence of a rural peasantry with access to land, steeped in peasant productive culture, having the means and capable of sustaining even subsistence peasant farming, therefore representing a significant section of the indigenous majority capable of acting independently;
  • The creation of an entrenched social order of privilege and power characterised in the main by an essentially three-layered hierarchy of racial divisions;
  • Given the foregoing, the construction of South Africa as a state built in all respects as a racist entity of defined unequal racial communities, and the later systematic insertion into this by the apartheid regime of ethnic identities and divisions among the African majority;
  • The positioning of South Africa as an economic outpost of the developed Western world, and therefore a producer and exporter of precious minerals and raw materials, and importer of manufactured goods; and,
  • The positioning of South Africa as other than an African country, arguing that it occupies a special space as the exemplar of ‘modern’ human development within a ‘pre-modern’ and regressive African Continent.

Based on these conditions, the ANC as a credible organisation of the African oppressed, even before Oliver Tambo joined it, had no choice but to strive for the reconstruction of South Africa away from the paradigm representative and characteristic of South African colonial reality – which colonialism the South African Communist Party, fifty-two years ago, correctly characterised as ‘colonialism of a special type’.

Accordingly and correctly, from the time of its foundation, the ANC set itself the task to end colonial and white minority rule in our country, and indeed our region, therefore to transform South Africa into a non-racial democracy.

The past, unlike the rubble from a construction site, cannot just be carted away for disposal as waste. Entire communities, groups, and individuals have internalised aspects of the past as defining their identities. Yet others, in order to cope with the complexities and trauma associated with rapid change and transformation, tend to cling on to the past, or rather what they perceive to be the past, for security.

President Tambo and his generation inherited the ANC faced by the challenges outlined above. This generation discovered its mission and set out to fulfill it.

Character of OR Tambo and his generation.

What sustained this generation to be able to take the ANC to new heights? Amongst others, this generation had the following attributes:

  • An unwavering commitment to serve the people of South Africa with no expectation of any personal benefit:
  • A sustained determination to conduct himself in his personal life so that at all times he would never betray the ethical standards which the masses he represented and led viewed as fundamental to their definition of themselves;
  • The commitment, to its fullest extent, of the entirety of his enormous intellectual capacity and personal energy to pursue the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution;
  • The ability to lead the broad forces of the National Democratic Revolution through the twists and turns of an ever-changing and therefore dynamic national, continental and international situation, ensuring that the revolution did not lose its focus on its fundamental goals;
  • The capacity to communicate well-thought-out, clear and relevant messages to the national democratic movement as a whole about its tasks at all times, which reassured everybody that there was a purpose to their actions and a positive end-game to their sacrifices; and,
  • The ability to ensure the cohesion of the forces of revolution by taking all the necessary steps, including through even his personal interaction with the people constituting these masses, which reinforced the confidence of these forces in the apex leadership of the revolution, which strengthened their will and capacity to act as one cohesive force.
  • 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 rest of the world.


As we recall the immense contribution of OR Tambo and his generation to our struggle, let me borrow the words from Karl Marx.

In a letter to his father in 1837, Karl Marx says: “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”.

Tambo and his generation spent their lives in the service of the people of Africa and the progressive humanity globally.


President Tambo in many respects embodied the finest traditions of our revolutionary alliance, which brings together the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

The history of the national liberation movement is in the main the complex inter-penetration of national, class and gender struggles. That is the explanation for the enduring alliance between the ANC, SACP and COSATU. From very early in their respective histories, the Communist Party and the ANC shared common objectives. In time this matured into a political alliance, with a common approach to their immediate and intermediate goals.

The struggle to transform the existing society requires an endeavour to comprehend and systematically analyse it, so as to lay bare the living relations that undergird it. Our analysis will thus inform and guide our practice.


Because the present is but the synthesis of the contradictory forces of the past, learning to reflect on our past helps inoculate us, as far as possible, from the malady of repeating past follies.

So it is all the more advisable to pay heed to the generation that shaped the character and value system of the struggle for justice based on morally commendable claims as we build a people-centred democracy.

There could be no sufficient understanding of modern day South Africa and hence the future we are constructing if such understanding does not proceed from the historical consciousness set off by earlier generations.

We, who have donned the mask of these generations, addressing conditions that prevail in our country, who see the necessity to deepen the social transformation of our society, must ensure that our actions and language must always translate back to the ideals that past generations have stood for. The current leadership in every station of our work must perform the tasks of the time mindful of the costumes and traditions of all dead generations.

Thank you.

For more information, contact the Spokesperson to the Minister: Ms Lisa Combrinck at 082 821 4886/

Issued by the Department of Arts and Culture