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Oliver Tambo

Oliver Tambo
Born Oliver Reginald Tambo
(1917-10-27)27 October 1917
Nkantolo, Bizana, South Africa
Died 24 April 1993(1993-04-24) (aged 75)
Johannesburg, South Africa
Nationality South African
Occupation Teacher and lawyer
Known for President of the African National Congress
Spouse(s) Adelaide Tambo

Oliver Reginald Tambo (27 October 1917[1] – 24 April 1993) was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991.


  • Early life 1
  • International Relationships 2
  • Guerrilla Activity 3
  • Honours 4
  • Literature 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

Early life

Oliver Reginald Tambo (fondly known as O. R.) was born on 27 October 1917, his father was Mzimeni and his mother was called Julia. He was born in the village of Nkantolo in Bizana in eastern Pondoland in what is now Eastern Cape. He attended a school at Holy Cross Mission School, and then transferred to St. Peters in Johannesburg. After matriculation he qualified to do his university degree at the University of Fort Hare. In 1940 he, along with several others including Nelson Mandela, was expelled from Fort Hare University for participating in a student strike. In 1942 Tambo returned to his former high school in Johannesburg to teach science and mathematics. Tambo, along with Mandela and Walter Sisulu, were the founding members of the ANC Youth League in 1943, becoming its first National Secretary and later a member of the National Executive in 1948. The youth league proposed a change in tactics of the anti-apartheid movement. Previously the ANC had sought to further its cause by actions such as petitions and demonstrations; the Youth League felt these actions were insufficient to achieve the group's goals and proposed their own 'Programme of Action'. This programme advocated tactics such as boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes and non-collaboration.

Tambo being greeted on arrival in East Germany (1978)

In 1955, Tambo became Secretary General of the ANC after Walter Sisulu was banned by the South African government under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1958 he became Deputy President of the ANC and in 1959 was served with a five-year banning order by the government.

In response, Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mobilise opposition to apartheid. He settled with his family in Muswell Hill, north London, where he lived until 1990.[2] He was involved in the formation of the South African Democratic Front. In 1967, Tambo became Acting President of the ANC, following the death of Chief Albert Lutuli.

The post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified Tambo as the person who gave final approval for the 1983 Church Street bombing, which resulted in the death of 17 people and injuries to 197.[3][4] In a 1985 interview, Tambo was quoted as saying, "In the past, we were saying the ANC will not deliberately take innocent life. But now, looking at what is happening in South Africa, it is difficult to say civilians are not going to die."[5]

In 1985 he was re-elected President of the ANC. He returned to South Africa on 13 December 1990 after over 30 years in exile,[6][7][8] and was elected National Chairperson of the ANC in July of the same year. Tambo died aged 75 due to complications from a stroke on 24 April 1993.[9]

International Relationships

The strong fight against apartheid brought Tambo to strike up a series of intense international relationships. In 1977 Tambo signed the first solidarity agreement between ANC and a Municipality:[10] The Italian town of [11] It was Tambo himself to ask Reggio Emilia to coin Isitwalandwe Medals, the greatest ANC's honour.

Guerrilla Activity

During his early years with the ANC Oliver Tambo was directly responsible for organizing active guerrilla units. Along with his cohorts Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, and Walter Sisulu; Tambo directed and facilitated several attacks against unarmed civilians. Of which one of the most notable was the Church Street Bombing on 20 May 1983, which resulted in the death of 19 civilians and the wounding of a further 217. In submissions to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 and 1998, the ANC revealed that the attack was orchestrated by a special operations unit of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), commanded by Aboobaker Ismail. Such units had been authorised by Oliver Tambo, the ANC President, in 1979. At the time of the attack, they reported to Joe Slovo as chief of staff, and the Church Street attack was authorised by Tambo.

The ANC's submission said that the bombing was in response to a South African cross-border raid into Lesotho in December 1982 which killed 42 ANC supporters and civilians, and the assassination of Ruth First, an ANC activist and wife of Joe Slovo, in Maputo, Mozambique. It claimed that 11 of the casualties were SAAF personnel and hence a military target. The legal representative of some of the victims argued that as administrative staff including telephonists and typists they could not accept that they were a legitimate military target.

Ten MK operatives including Aboobaker Ismail applied for amnesty for this and other bombings. The applications were opposed on various grounds, including that it was a terrorist attack disproportionate to the political motive. The TRC found that the number of civilians versus military personnel killed was unclear. South African Police statistics indicated that 7 members of the SAAF were killed. The commission found that at least 84 of the injured were SAAF members or employees. Amnesty was granted by the TRC [12]


In 2004, he was voted number 31 in the SABC3's Great South Africans, scoring lower than H. F. Verwoerd, before the SABC decided to cancel the final rounds of voting. The decision to cancel the results was largely informed by the fact that the majority of black South Africans did not participate in the voting, as SABC 3 caters predominantly for English speakers.

In late 2005, ANC politicians announced plans to rename Johannesburg International Airport after him. The proposal was accepted and the renaming ceremony occurred on 27 October 2006. The ANC-dominated government had previously renamed Jan Smuts Airport as Johannesburg International Airport in 1994 on the grounds that South African airports should not be named after political figures.

There is also a bust of him in Albert Road Recreation Ground, Muswell Hill outside Alexandra Park School. In June 2013, the city of Reggio Emilia (Italy) celebrated Tambo with the creation of Park dedicated to the President of African National Congress.

Tambo's grave was declared a National Heritage site when he died but lost this status when his wife, Adelaide Tambo died and was buried alongside him. However their grave was re-declared as a National Heritage site in October 2012.[13]


  • Baai, Gladstone Sandi (2006): Oliver Reginald Tambo: teacher, lawyer & freedom fighter, Houghton(South Africa): Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust.
  • Callinicos, L. (2004). Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains. Claremont, South Africa: David Philip.
  • Pallo Jordan, Z. (2007): Oliver Tambo remembered, Johannesburg: Pan Macmillan.
  • Tambo, O., & Reddy, E. S. (1987): Oliver Tambo and the struggle against apartheid, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, in collaboration with the Namedia Foundation.
  • Tambo, Oliver & Tambo, Adelaide (1988): Preparing for power: Oliver Tambo speaks, New York: G. Braziller, ©1987.
  • Tambo, O., & Reddy, E. S.(1991): Oliver Tambo, apartheid and the international community : addresses to United Nations committees and conferences, New Delhi: Namedia Foundation: Sterling Publishers.
  • Van Wyk, Chris (2003): Oliver Tambo. Gallo Manor, South Africa: Awareness Pub. Learning African history freedom fighters series.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Oliver Tambo: the exile, The Independent, 15 October 2007
  3. ^ "SAPA – 12 May 97 – Tambo Ordered Church Street Blast: ANC". Department of Justice & Constitutional Development. Retrieved 22 December 2013. 
  4. ^ "1983: Car bomb in South Africa kills 16". BBC On This Day. 20 May 1983. Retrieved 22 December 2013. 
  5. ^ "Guerrilla Group Vows to Step Up Anti-Apartheid Campaign Even if S. African Civilian Toll Rises". Los Angeles Times. 26 June 1985. Retrieved 22 December 2013. 
  6. ^ "ANC leader returns to S. Africa after spending 30 years in exile". Deseret News. 13 December 1990. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  7. ^ "Oliver Tambo returns from exile". South African History Online. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  8. ^ Tambo, Oliver (16 December 1990). "Speech by Oliver Tambo at an ANC rally after the close of the National Consultative Conference". ANC. Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  9. ^ Keller, Bill (25 April 1993). "Oliver Tambo Is Dead at 75; Led Assault on Apartheid". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ "10 Years of Freedom: South Africa and Italy Co-Celebrate the Victory over Nazi-Fascism and the Victory over Apartheid". Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  11. ^ "Mozambique: the Italian "ship of solidarity" arrives in Port Maputo loaded with aid for the people of Southern Africa.". Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Germaner, Shain. "Tambo gravesite re-declared National Heritage site". Eye Witness News. 

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • ANC biography
  • SAHO biography
  • The African Activist Archive Project website includes the audio of a January 1987 Reception Honoring ANC President Oliver R. Tambo hosted by the American Committee on Africa and The Africa Fund with remarks by Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Davis and Tambo. The website includes other material on Tambo.
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