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26 October 2014 07:00 (South Africa)
South Africa

Road to Mangaung: Whose Tambo was he anyway?

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
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In the latest episode of the ANC’s war with itself, there is now a contest over the legacy of former ANC President Oliver Tambo and who knew and understood him best. It seems his legacy being contorted to suit just about every faction. “What would Tambo do” is the new Mangaung campaign slogan. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

For ANC people (those who grew up in the ANC, not those who use membership as a hot-ticket to the high-life), Oliver Tambo was the epitome of everything that was good and valiant about the organisation during the liberation struggle. He was a master strategist, an organic thinker and an inspirational force who kept the ANC together through the height of Apartheid repression during his presidency in exile. 

As the ruling party now battles to distinguish the real ANC from the factions and interest groups pulling it apart, it is a shadow of the organisation it was under Tambo. Of the ANC’s 12 presidents to date, Tambo was the ANC at its best. Nelson Mandela was the symbol of resistance; Tambo was the guardian. 

As the battle of Mangaung reaches a crescendo, of course there would be contestation over who or what is closest to the memory of the ANC’s greatest leader. And none of the ANC’s current leaders seem to feel any level of hesitation or shame in invoking the legend's name to score points against others. 

Police Minister and ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member Nathi Mthethwa has even used Tambo to fight the great nationalisation battle, one of the most divisive issues in the ruling party as it approaches its 53rd national conference. 

Speaking at a Tambo memorial lecture in Welkom in the northern Free State this weekend, Mthethwa said the ANC’s ninth president would have would have rejected wholesale nationalisation. 

“President OR Tambo would have been in tandem with the ANC's policy conference proposal to reject the wholesale nationalisation, whilst giving his nod to radical acceleration of the economic struggle,” said Mthethwa.

How Mthethwa acquired the powers to communicate with the dead such that he can predict something in such vivid detail is anyone’s guess. 

President Jacob Zuma has also used the occasion of the ANC commemoration of Tambo’s life as part of its centenary celebrations to beat off his opponents. Zuma condemned those who “compare themselves to Tambo when in fact they are rude”, in a snide reference to the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). 

“Many talks have been made about this leader. There are not many leaders that we can speak of in the manner that we speak of Tambo. There are even those whom we are not sure whether they believed in him, but they say they do,” Zuma said at Nkantolo in Mbizana on Sunday.

“The youth league that was built by Tambo, Madiba and Walter Sisulu had people who were deep thinkers… (people) who helped the organisation to fight and conquer the enemy. They changed the ANC… with humility and respect. Others don't understand this and think that they can change things with force.

“People want to liken themselves to this leader when in fact they are rude. He was never rude. These were the leaders who were respectful,” Zuma said. 

The president’s comments would have been a lot more sincere if he himself was not fighting off attempts by the Youth League to unseat him. It also came in the wake of a messy clash between his and his potential challenger Kgalema Motlanthe’s diaries. (The Youth League had to cancel an event in the Eastern Cape on Saturday where Motlanthe was billed to speak after arrangements were made for Zuma to speak at an event in the same area on Sunday.)

The ANCYL read a conspiracy into the double booking of events in the highly contested area of the Eastern Cape. 

“The OR Tambo Rally was organised by the ANC Youth League more than two months ago to celebrate the life of one of its founding fathers and greatest revolutionaries of our movement, Cde Oliver Reginald Tambo. All necessary protocols including informing the African National Congress through the

secretary-general’s office were complied with. There was no competing programme at any point,” the ANCYL said. 

“We are not surprised however to note that President Zuma has agreed to address a rally in the same area organised by the provincial executive committee of the ANC the following day. This swiftly organised rally is nothing but a blatant and immature act to sabotage the activities of the ANC Youth League. The reason is simply because the ANC Youth League rally was meant to be addressed by Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe, the people’s choice for president of the ANC,” the league charged in a statement. 

Even former President Thabo Mbeki used the ANC’s commemoration of Tambo’s leadership to ventilate his long suppressed criticism of those who deposed him. 

“I must say that I know of the corrosive and self-serving practice according to which we, sitting in decision-making positions in both the ruling party and the organs of state, would seek to explain away our failures by blaming everybody else other than ourselves, thus to justify and therefore perpetuate our own failures!

 “Out of respect from what I learnt from Oliver Tambo and others of our esteemed leaders, over many years, I would make bold to say that this manner of proceeding constitutes a betrayal of the kind of leadership expected of us, basing ourselves on the noble traditions handed down to us by these leaders,” Mbeki said during a lecture on Tambo at Fort Hare recently. 

Zuma’s own lecture on Tambo last week examined what he thought the former ANC president would want of his organisation at this point in its history. 

“What would he want us to do at this point in our history?” Zuma asked. “He would call on the ANC and on its members and supporters, to rise above petty squabbles internally and instead weld together a popular movement equal to the challenges of our times. President Tambo would remind us not to confuse the nation and friends around the world through petty squabbles and factionalism.

“As a leader of society, the ANC must lead by example, displaying cohesion, clarity and respect for one another and for the nation as a whole. He would urge all of us to pursue the course of the greatest unity of democratic forces, especially the revolutionary alliance,” Zuma said. 

This may be a true but nevertheless handy, self-serving inference to make when Zuma is trying to bridge consensus around his second term. In the face of criticism from Motlanthe and others that the ANC was too heavy handed in dealing with the disciplinary case of expelled Youth League President Julius Malema, Zuma had this to say:

“President Tambo would empathise with the suffering masses and even those who demand instant solutions to the country’s problems. Most importantly, he would require of us to be steadfast on principle and to display revolutionary discipline.

“He would urge us to unite and build our glorious movement the ANC, and protect it from all sorts of negative tendencies, corruption and opportunism.”

Out of all the extrapolations of what Tambo would say, do and feel, it is a great pity that so much of what the man himself actually said during the time he led the ANC is overlooked. Tambo did in fact state who he wanted to lead the ANC.

In his message to the ANC NEC on 8 January 1985, Tambo said in order to move the struggle for liberation forward, particular attention should be paid to the task of building a strong presence of “well-organised revolutionary cadres”.   

“Who are these revolutionary cadres about whom we speak? Where are they? They are not special people. It is we – men and women, young and old, black and white – who are involved in daily struggles, making sacrifices in pursuit of the people’s cause. It is we, the workers in the factories, the mines, the farms, the commercial establishments and offices of various kinds; we, who work in health and educational services as well as those of us occupied within the residential areas.” 

Ironically, these are the very people from whom the ANC is growing apart.

At the end of that message, Tambo said: “The strength of any organisation lies in the calibre of its individual members and units. In order to advance in keeping with the momentum of our struggle we must improve the quality and expand the quantity of our membership. We need cadres of unquestionable loyalty, dedication and understanding of our struggle.”

The ANC of today is not what its forefathers hoped it would turn out to be. Every year a similar process of interpretation and calculated guessing is embarked on at the anniversary of the assassination of former SACP General Secretary Chris Hani. 

It would seem that none of those who use the memory of their leaders to endorse their political bankruptcy or defend their positions feel any shame in doing so. They all dwell under the delusion that they knew their leaders best and can therefore deduce that had they lived on, they would adopt the very same views they do. Or, at worst, pretend to.

As long as the dead cannot speak for themselves, their memory becomes a mere campaign tool. Oliver Reginald Tambo may be a legend-saint these days, but no legend or saint is safe in ANC's power battles of today. DM

Photo: South African president Jacob Zuma gestures next to a portrait of late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Reginald Tambo, during a briefing with the South African Foreign Correspondents Association in Johannesburg October 29, 2012. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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