2017 marks the centenary of Oliver Reginald Tambo. Twenty-four years after his death, a belated – yet significant – step has been taken to acknowledge Oliver Tambo’s pivotal contribution to the freedom struggle in South Africa.
A major exhibition curated by the Apartheid Museum as a tribute to Tambo – or “O.R.”, as he was lovingly known – will be on display at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg during August and September this year. The exhibition will be launched formally on 23 August 2017 at 2pm at the Apartheid Museum.
Within days of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 in which at least 69 peaceful protesters were shot dead, Tambo was instructed by the ANC to leave the country to establish a Mission in Exile – a complex and exhausting task that would last for 30 years.
Elected president of the ANC after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli in 1967, Tambo is credited with being the “glue” that held the liberation movement together, though troubled and immensely difficult times, while Nelson Mandela and the other leaders languished on Robben Island.
Entitled Oliver Reginald Tambo: The Modest Revolutionary (1917-1993), the exhibition has been produced by the Apartheid Museum, in association with the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation and the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA). It is presented for the first time at the Apartheid Museum.
Comprehensive in its scope, the exhibition covers Tambo’s early life and education in the Transkei; his training as a teacher; his difficult choice of entering politics rather than the priesthood; his partnership as a lawyer with Nelson Mandela; his escape to exile; his unfailing determination to build the movement in a hostile world; his principled leadership of the armed struggle; and his championing of the isolation of the apartheid regime.
It concludes with the drafting of the historic Harare Declaration, which became the blueprint of the negotiated settlement and paved the way for the birth of democracy in South Africa. Indeed, as the exhibition shows, it was his tireless and exacting personal involvement in the formulation of the Harare Declaration that led to him suffering a devastating stroke.
Finally, arriving back home in South Africa in December 1990, a frail and sick man, he died on 24 April 1993, almost a year to the day before the first democratic elections were held. Like the fabled Moses, he had led his people – but was denied entry – to the Promised Land!
While the exhibition is faithful to the historical record, it is also concerned that Tambo not be lionized as a messiah, but remembered for his humanity, compassion and incorruptible integrity.
“Although he was a brilliant strategist, he never lost sight of the personal,” says Emilia Potenza, the curator of the exhibition. “He made his mark on all who crossed his path and regarded himself as the father of all the young people who went into exile, a responsibility he took very seriously.”
Potenza illustrates the point by telling how, after the South African security forces launched a raid into Maseru in 1982 killing 42 people, most of whom were ANC members. Tambo insisted on going to the funerals and comforting the bereaved families – at great personal risk to himself.
The exhibition also highlights Tambo’s progressive attitude towards women. “He was ahead of his times,” notes Potenza. “He led by example, promoting women to senior positions and encouraging them to not to shy away from challenges.”
Tambo’s story has not been told before in a popular way that talks to the youth of the country. This exhibition begins the process of restoring this great man to his rightful place in the hearts and minds of all South Africans and future generations that are to follow.”