Minister Pallo Jordan’s opening remarks in Heritage Day debate honouring Oliver Reginald Tambo

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20 Sep 2007

Madam Speaker,
Honourable Members,
Comrades and Friends,

Heritage is one of the primary sources of identity, imparting to communities a sense of belonging. That South Africa is culturally diverse is readily recognized. Less evident is the role that heritage can play in nurturing our national identity, social cohesion, conflict prevention and promoting human security. A group of independent experts set up by the Director General of UNESCO defined cultural diversity as “the manifold ways in which the cultures of social groups and societies find expression.” This suggests that rather than dividing us, cultural diversity is our collective strength, which could benefit the entire world. In this sense, it should be recognised and affirmed as the “common heritage” of all South Africans. Our South African Heritage draws on three continents and we, on this side of the house, have always accepted this outcome as the verdict of history. Humanism, that affirms the dignity and worth of all people, based on our human capacity to reason, is the connecting thread among these traditions. Its African spirit is best expressed as “Umntu, ngumntu ngabantu” – One’s humanity is affirmed in the recognition of the humanity of others!

One finds the same notion highlighted in the writings of a social and political philosopher who was voted the most influential thinker of the second millennium A.D. by the audiences of the BBC World Services:

“To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for humanity the root is humanity itself… hence… the categorical imperative to overthrow all relations in which humans are debased, enslaved forsaken, despicable beings.....”

Madame Speaker,

The man whose life's work we are commemorating was born on 27th October 1917, in the Mbizana district of eastern Mpondolond (eQawukeni) in the Transkei. After serving the usual rural apprenticeship as herdboy he enrolled at an Anglican school before going to St Peter's Secondary school in Johannesburg. He was awarded a scholarship by the Transkei Bhunga which took him to the University College of Fort Hare, where he attained a degree in science, qualifying to become a teacher of mathematics and science.

From 1943 until 1947 he taught these subjects at his alma mater, St Peter's in Johannesburg. He gave up teaching to study law in 1948 and established the first African legal partnership with Nelson Mandela in December 1952.

The repressive hand of the apartheid regime pre-empted a second career change in December 1956. Two days before the Bishop of Johannesburg, The Most Reverend Ambrose Reeves, was due to prepare him for ordination as a priest, Oliver Tambo was arrested with 155 others on charges of High Treason on 6th December 1956.

Oliver Tambo chose his path when he joined the ANC after completing his studies at Fort Hare. From 1947 until his death in 1993, Oliver Tambo was among the leading figures of the ANC and he left an indelible mark on South African politics. When Walter Sisulu was forbidden from taking an active part in ANC affairs in 1954, Oliver Tambo became Secretary-General of the ANC; by 1957 he had been elected Deputy President to Chief Albert Luthuli. He became Acting-President when Chief Luthuli died in 1967 and assumed the ANC’s Presidency at the Morogoro conference in 1969 .

Though the ANC-led campaigns were militant, they were scrupulously non-violent. The response of the White minority government, however, was not as restrained. It unleashed a wave of repression. Armed police, sometimes assisted by army units, shot peaceful demonstrators; police wielding batons, billy clubs and pick-axe handles administered brutal beatings to those not fleet-footed enough to get away; entire villages of people in the rural areas were deported to distant areas; and the pre-dawn Security Police raid became a regular feature of South African life.

Commencing with the passage of the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, in incremental steps, the apartheid government turned the law into a formidable instrument of repression. These repressions culminated at Sharpeville in March 1960, when 69 peaceful demonstrators, the majority shot in the back, were massacred by police as they protested against the Pass Laws.

A few days prior to 30th March, Oliver Tambo was instructed to travel abroad to establish an external mission for the ANC to mobilise international support and coordinate activities for the anticipated years of underground struggle. In July 1963, Security Police swooped on a farm. Liliesleaf, in Rivonia. The upshot was that ten leaders of the ANC, including Nelson Mandela, were put on trial on charges of planning acts of sabotage and conspiring to overthrow the government. Their trial, known as the Rivonia Trial, ended with Nelson Mandela and seven of his colleagues being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

Rivonia and the repression which followed thrust upon the very ample shoulders of O.R. Tambo the responsibility of leading the ANC in exile as well as at home: A task he assumed with a quiet determination and immense dignity.

By the time he took over the helm of the ANC, Oliver Tambo was a seasoned political leader with two decades of active engagement behind him. He understood his task as two-fold - to rebuild the ANC as a mass movement inside South Africa, while enhancing its capacity to lead an armed insurgent movement from outside South Africa's borders.

In celebrating the life of Oliver Tambo, we are honouring an important dimension of our South African Heritage - the heritage of struggle against colonial domination and racial oppression. Oliver Tambo pursued the goal of liberation and creating a democratic South Africa with an unrelenting energy, a quiet tenacity and steadfast perseverance. By the end of his life, the object of his dreams was within sight. His singular contribution was his insistence that the movement never compromise its humanity.!

At the ceremony marking the ANC’s adherence to the Geneva Protocols on the Conduct of War, among other things he said :

“We in the African National Congress (of South Africa) solemnly undertake to respect the Geneva Conventions and the additional Protocol 1 in so far as they are applicable to the struggle waged on behalf of the African National Congress by its combatants, Umkhonto we Sizwe. This Convention is one of the cornerstones of humanitarian international law.”

By that action, Oliver Tambo demonstrated that even though the liberation movement had taken up arms, was engaged in acts of violence which sometimes resulted in deaths, there was no moral equivalence between it and the oppressive apartheid regime.

Madam Speaker,

Historians have warned that it is not nations that generate nationalism, it is nationalism that produces nations. Definitions of who is included and who is excluded are not pre-ordained, but take account of differing historical circumstances. South Africa, like many other states in the world, is a heterogeneous melting pot of different races, ethnic groups and languages.

Our Constitution defines a South African citizen in terms of our national territory, allegiance to our national institutions and the people of our country. This conception of the nation has won near universal acceptance amongst South Africans today. But that was not always the case. At the time of the founding of the ANC all the White political parties espoused an undisguised White supremacy. From 1913, when General Hertzog founded the NP, it strove to exclude all Blacks from South Africa’s body politique such that by the time Verwoerd assumed leadership of that party in 1957, Africans, Coloureds and Indians had all been disenfranchised. The NP thus became the party of the pre-1994 status quo – deeply racist, repressive and backward looking.

Addressing the Nation on Radio Freedom on 8th January 1979, Oliver Tambo reiterated that vision, dating back to 1912:

“Let us in South Africa learn to stop being Bantus, Coloureds, Indians and whites. Let us be what we are, Africans in Africa. Let those who are committed racists, who came to this continent determined to keep Africans in chains, to be perpetual white masters over blacks - let them persist in their role as foreigners on African soil.”

This profoundly anti-racist and non-racial ethos was rooted as much in his politics as in his deeply held Christian values. However, he never allowed these to impair the movement's capacity to wage armed struggle. Drawing a sharp distinction between the institutionalized violence of the oppressive system and the violence of resistance, he argued that an unconditional adherence to nonviolence on principle, would help sustain the institutionalized violence of apartheid.

Oliver Tambo was a very tough task master because he insisted on the quality of the movement he led. He repeatedly underscored the quality of its leadership as he did the quality of its actions. But he was a leader who led from the front. While he was demanding on those who worked under him, he was himself a tireless worker, very often undertaking far too many tasks and consequently over-extending himself. In the end it was the demands he placed on himself that subsequently led to his ill-health and probably hastened his death.

It was these qualities which made Oliver Tambo a truly great leader of the ANC and of the South African liberation movement. It was these qualities that endeared him to all the ANC ranks, from its leadership to the youngest cadre. It was these qualities that made him a great South African!

In the words of Prince Emeka Anyaoku :

“For the best part of half a century he had toiled unstintingly to bring his people out of the bondage of apartheid slavery and he died knowing that this was as good as achieved.”

In honouring Oliver Tambo, we honour the best in ourselves