Oliver Tambo

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For the airport, see OR Tambo International Airport.
Oliver Tambo
Oliver Tambo (1981).jpg
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 a central figure in the African National Congress (ANC).

Early life[edit]

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[edit]

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 Reggio Emilia was the first city in the world to sign a pact of solidarity. This was the beginning of a long understanding and that meant for Italy to put an effort into concrete actions to support the right of southern African people's self-determination: one of these actions was the organisation of solidarity ships. The first one, called "Amanda", departed from Genova in 1980.[11] It was Tambo himself to ask Reggio Emilia to coin Isitwalandwe Medals, the greatest ANC's honour.


In 2004, he was voted number 31 in the SABC3's Great South Africans,[citation needed] 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.[12]


  • 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. ^ http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/oliver-reginald-tambo
  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. ^ Germaner, Shain. "Tambo gravesite re-declared National Heritage site". Eye Witness News. 

External links[edit]