The fight against apartheid in South Africa was increasingly growing docile through the policies of nonviolence. On the other hand, the apartheid government was unrelenting in its quest for blood – violence was the only thing the apartheid government had understood. The approach had to be different, the time for being passive had come to an end.
The leaders at the helm of the fight against apartheid were Nelson Mandela, Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Joe Slovo. But in Oliver Tambo was a more special breed of a leader who was armed with gentleness and efficiency. Oliver Tambo, together with Nelson Mandela, had forged the African National Congress (ANC) into a robust and spirited militant organization that was willfully determined to attain freedom for black people in South Africa. They rejuvenated an ANC that had turned into a flagging organization. When they formed the ANC Youth League in 1943, they were departing from the exhausted methods of petitions and demonstrations.
When Walter Sisulu was banned by the government in 1955 under the provisions of the Suppression of Communism Act, Oliver Tambo became the ANC’s, Secretary-General. His revolutionary style of politics was an imminent danger to the interests of the apartheid government and in 1959 was punished with a five-year banning order by the government. At that time, he had become the ANC’s, Deputy President.
When Congress was banned in 1960, Tambo was sent abroad to rally support against apartheid. He rallied for foreign support by mobilizing international sanctions and building a guerrilla army in the neighboring states of Africa. His aim of keeping the ANC intact even though in exile morphed the ANC into a party that was ready to secure independence.
In 1967, Tambo was made Acting President of the ANC. He was responsible for organizing active guerrilla units and facilitating attacks against the apartheid government. When they had adopted a militant approach to the struggle Tambo remarked he “knew that nonviolence had become meaningless.” This was after the apartheid government had opened fire on a demonstration in Sharpeville, killing 69 people and wounding 181 others. The military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation thus came to life.
The guerrilla-style of resistance had become the ANC’s only choice in fighting apartheid. After a series of attacks on Government buildings believed to symbolize apartheid Mandela was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1962. Tambo’s overtures to the U.S for assistance were rejected but he won favor with the Soviet Union and obtained an agreement on the supply of arms from the Soviet Union.
The attacks against apartheid intensified to the extent that by 1981, attacks on police stations, pass-records offices, and oil refineries were occurring on an average of one every 53 hours. In defense of these actions, Tambo said “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.”
He argued that it was not proper for black freedom fighters to be labeled as “terrorists” when in fact the white government had been involved in acts of terrorism beyond human comprehension. In 1982 he said, “We are called terrorists. After 70 years, what would anybody do if the response had been a murder, torture, life imprisonment? Who is a terrorist? Is it not the person who has been persecuting human beings simply because they are black?”
He urged black South Africans in 1985, through a broadcast from a Zambian radio station, to make their townships “ungovernable.”
Oliver Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in the Eastern Cape. He died on April 24, 1993, after suffering complications from a stroke. He died aged 75. His death came 14 days after the assassination of Chris Hani who was the radical leader of the South African Communist Party. After the death of Tambo, Nelson Mandela became the leader of the ANC.
The move to make the struggle more militant remains one of Tambo’s greatest legacies. In 2005, the Johannesburg International Airport was renamed after him in his honor. His dedication to the war remains a beacon of inspiration to Africans.