Oliver Tambo – a summary

Oliver Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in the Eastern Cape where he attended primary school. He completed his high school education in Johannesburg and went on to study at Fort Hare University where he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in 1941. As a result of joining a student boycott he was expelled and was unable to complete his honours degree.

Programme of Action

Oliver TamboOliver Tambo returned to his high school in Johannesburg as a teacher of science and mathematics and joined the African National Congress (ANC) becoming a founding member of the ANC Youth League. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others advocated a spirit of militancy in the ANC, and in 1948 he and Sisulu were elected onto the National Executive Committee of the ANC. This position allowed Tambo to impart impetus to the Youth League’s agenda at the top level of the ANC’s senior body. Tambo served on the committee that drew up the Programme of Action which was adopted as ANC policy in 1949. The Programme of Action included civil disobedience, strikes and other forms of non-violent resistance.

Soon after the adoption of the Programme of Action Tambo left his teaching post and set up a legal partnership with Nelson Mandela, forming the first black law firm in the country.

Campaign of Defiance

In 1952 Tambo courted imprisonment by deliberately breaking apartheid laws during the ANC’s Campaign of Defiance. During the mass trials that followed in 1955, Sisulu was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act, and Oliver Tambo took over as Secretary General of the ANC. The ANC called a Congress of the People in June 1955 and Tambo, along with 156 others, was arrested and accused of treason. In 1956, while on bail, he married Adelaide Tshukudu. In 1959 Tambo was served with a five-year banning order.

Under instruction of the ANC Executive, Tambo left South Africa to set up a Mission in Exile. Tambo established ANC missions in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and London and ultimately, under his stewardship, the ANC acquired missions in 27 countries. In 1961 the ANC adopted the armed struggle as part of its strategy and Tambo secured the co-operation of many African governments in providing camps and training facilities.

President of the ANC

Oliver Tambo bustAfter the death of the ANC President Albert Luthuli in 1967, Oliver Tambo was appointed firstly as Acting President and two years later as President of the ANC. Tambo was active in the 1970s in promoting the cause of the ANC worldwide, including an address to the United Nations.

In 1985 Tambo was re-elected President of the ANC and also served as head of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the movement. Tambo played a major role in the growth and development of the ANC, transforming it into a radical national liberation movement.

In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke and underwent extensive medical treatment.

With the unbanning of the ANC in 1991 and the release from prison of his long time friend and colleague, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo returned to South Africa after three decades in exile. He was elected National Chairperson of the ANC.

Tambo has been described as the glue that held the anti-apartheid movement together. He was a patient listener with a razor-sharp intellect who worked to reach decisions through consensus. During his 30 years working in foreign countries he was a relentless lobbyist who brought the plight of black South Africans under the apartheid regime to world attention.

Oliver Tambo died on 24 April 1993, aged 76, and was survived by his wife Adelaide who died in 2007.

Anthony Holmes

Read more in South Africa: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and downloadable audio.

See also articles on Nelson MandelaDesmond TutuWalter Sisulu.
The image of Oliver Tambo is of a bust of him at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg.