Biography of the Week: Oliver Tambo

Names: Tambo, Oliver Reginald
Born: 27 October 1917, Nkantolo, Bizana, Mpondoland, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Died: 24 April 1993, Johannesburg
In summary: Teacher, lawyer, President and National Chairperson of the ANC.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo (OR) was born in the village of Kantilla, Bizana, in the Mpondoland (eQawukeni), region of the Eastern Cape, on 27 October 1917. His mother, Julia, was the third wife of Mzimeni Tambo, son of a farmer and an assistant salesperson at a local trading store. His father had four wives and ten children and, although illiterate, lived comfortably. Mzimeni Tambo was a traditionalist, but also saw the importance of Western education. Later, Mzimeni converted to Christianity while Oliver's mother was already a devout Christian. After his birth, Oliver was christened Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, whose forces fought the British during World War 1. This was his father's way of showing his political awareness and his opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878.

As a young boy, he was given the task of herding his father’s cattle. With his fellow herders, he soon learnt to hunt birds, take part in stick fighting (at which he was quite adept) and model animals from clay.

When Tambo was six his father informed him that he was to start school, which was about a kilometre from his home. After enrolling, his teacher informed him that he had to have a "school name" and therefore his father gave him the name Oliver. Tambo passed Sub A, after which he attended another school at Embhobeni. Here he was first introduced to formal music, which became a lifelong activity and hobby.

His father, intent on providing his children with a good education, moved his children to the Ludeke Methodist School, some 16 kilometres away from the homestead. Occasionally his father would lend Tambo his horse to travel to school. To overcome the inconvenience of travelling the long distance to school his father got him to board with three families, all of whom who lived near the school.

In April 1928, Tambo and his brother Alan enrolled at the Anglican Holy Cross missionary school at Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape. His father could not afford their fees, but through two English women who were total strangers to them, Joyce and Ruth Goddard, assisted by sending a sum of £10 every year to cover his educational costs. In addition, one of his older brothers who worked as a migrant labourer in Natal, (now KwaZulu-Natal) also sent part of his wages to cover any additional costs. Tambo’s spiritual life was nurtured at Holy Cross where he was baptised as a Christian into the Anglican fold.

At this school, Tambo became a good cricketer and soccer player, and acquired quite a reputation as an athlete. He also established his prowess as a stick fighter. Amongst the schoolchildren at this school, was Fikile Bam, who was later imprisoned on Robben Island for Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) activities and rose to become a prominent attorney.

Tambo excelled at his studies but due to a lack of funds he was forced to repeat Standard Six (Grade Eight) two times in spite of passing at his first attempt. In 1934 he set out for St Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg with the assistance of Miss Tidmarsh his former teacher.

Apart from participating in soccer, tennis and cricket at St Peter’s, he was also a member of the school’s choir. At the age of 16, while on holiday in Kantolo, Tambo and some friends formed the Bizana Students Association (BSA). He was elected as Secretary of the organisation and Caledon Mda, was elected Chairperson. The aim of the BSA was to mobilise students during the holidays and engage them in organised activities.

Tambo was offered the position of Head Prefect at school but declined in favour of another student. Instead, he took up the position of Deputy Head Prefect. At about this time he renounced alcohol, vowing never to consume any more, something he did throughout his life. Tragedy struck during this period as his parents passed away within a year of each other.

In November 1936, he wrote his Junior Certificate (JC) examination, alongside black and white students in the Transvaal (now Gauteng). For the first time in history, two African students, one being Tambo, passed the JC examination with a first class. The Transkei Bhunga (Assembly of Chiefs), awarded him a five-year scholarship of £30 per annum. The University of South Africa also awarded him a two-year scholarship of £20. He then sat for the matriculation examinations in December 1938, which he passed with a first class pass.
Tambo initially wanted to study medicine, but at the time, no tertiary medical school accepted Black students in that field. He opted to study the sciences at the University of Fort Hare. At university, he first met Nelson Mandela, where both were members of the Students Christian Association. From his first year, Tambo taught Sunday school. He was also part of a singing group of eight students that was broadcast over the local radio station in Grahamstown. At the same time, he was stricken with asthma, a condition that he endured throughout his life.

In 1941, a White person in charge of the university kitchen assaulted Black women working there. An enquiry into the issue exonerated the man involved. The students convened a meeting and following intense debate, influenced by Tambo’s guidance, went on a boycott. In 1942, he was unanimously elected as Chairperson of the Students' Committee of his residence, Beda Hall. After three years, Tambo graduated with a B.Sc. degree in mathematics and physics from the University College of Fort Hare. He then enrolled for a diploma in higher education.

During this period Tambo led an initiative for students to rebuild a disused tennis court on the campus in order to pass time on Sundays. When the tennis court was completed, the students scheduled an opening ceremony, which Tambo reported to the Warden. The authorities declined permission for the students to play tennis on Sundays, as they believed it was a breach of the faith. The students then embarked on a policy of non-cooperation with the university authorities. As a consequence, Tambo, who at the time was Secretary of the Students Representative Council, together 45 other students, was expelled. All but 10 of them were readmitted after two or three weeks.

After his expulsion, Tambo went back to his home in Kantolo. He then applied for teaching jobs but was turned down when prospective employers learnt that he was expelled from University. Fortunately, he was offered a position as a teacher in Physics and Mathematics at his alma mater, St Peter's, where he spent five years. Former students taught by him recall his engaging style of teaching and consider him as an outstanding teacher. During this period Tambo became part of a small network of the young African elite in Johannesburg.

In 1942, he met Walter Sisulu, an estate agent whose office was used as a regular gathering place by young intellectuals. It was here that he also met other likeminded young people like Anton Lembede, Jordan Ngubane and Nelson Mandela, a fellow student from Fort Hare. Sisulu invited Tambo to his house where he was soon a regular guest on weekends.
Tambo, Sisulu, Mandela and other young intellectuals of the time regularly visited the house of Dr AB Xuma, a medical doctor who was also the President of the African National Congress (ANC). Here they formulated a plan to revive the ANC and make it more accessible to ordinary people. Tambo became informally involved in discussions of a committee of ANC members and Xuma responsible for drawing up a document called the African Claims in South Africa. He continued to do so until the final stages of its preparations. The ANC adopted this document at its 1943 Bloemfontein conference.

The idea of a national grouping of young men was conceived by Tambo and this idea crystallised into the beginnings of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). In December 1943, the ANCYL was formally accepted by the ANC at its Congress in Botshabelo, Bloemfontein and in September 1944, it held its official inauguration. Speakers at this meeting included Dr Xuma, Selope Thema, Dan Tloome and Tambo. Anton Lembede was elected President of the new ANCYL, AP Mda as the Vice President, Tambo as the Secretary and Sisulu as its Treasurer.

In 1948, the National Party (NP) came into power and a number of discriminatory laws were put into place. At around this time, Tambo enrolled to study law through correspondence. With the NP Government, passing more stringent laws against the disenfranchised population, the ANCYL, with Tambo as the scribe, prepared a Programme of Action, selecting tactics employed by other organisations in other campaigns – the civil disobedience campaign of the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign of the Indian organisations, strikes by the labour movement, mass action by the Communist Party of South Africa as well as grass roots campaigns such as that of James Mpanza’s Sofasonke movement.

At the 1948, ANC conference the ANCYL presented its document. However, Dr Xuma was not in favour of confrontational politics. The ANCYL resolved not to support his re-election as president unless he endorsed the Programme of Action. The conference itself accepted the Programme of Action but Xuma rejected the principle of the boycott tactics suggested by members of the ANCYL. Tambo and Ntsu Mokgehle (later to become the Prime Minister of Lesotho) then went and convinced Dr James S Moroka to stand as the ANC’s President. He was duly elected and the conference formally adopted the Programme of Action.

By 1948, Tambo was serving his law articles with a company of White lawyers, Max Kramer and Tuch. At the end of 1949, Tuch and Tambo joined the company of Solomon Kowalsky. One of his first cases at this company was a dispute among the Bafokeng people over land rights in Rustenburg, Western Transvaal (now North West Province). His sound knowledge of customary law helped, successfully, to conclude the case. At the same time he enrolled and studied by correspondence through the University of South Africa, studying by candle light at home.

Read the full biography from the South African History Online at

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