The spirit of Oliver Tambo lives on

  • Posted: Jun 14, 2013

In acknowledgment of the man who was and whose legacy in South Africa lives on, Iziko Museums of South Africahosts a world class exhibition in tribute to Oliver Tambo at the Iziko Slave Lodge. Twenty years after his death, a belated – yet significant – step has been taken to honour the pivotal contribution he made to the freedom struggle in South Africa. Imbued with historical resonance, this seminal tribute to Tambo, or “OR”, as he was lovingly known, was launched on the eve of Human Rights Day, or Sharpeville Day as this day was previously known.

Within days of the Sharpeville shootings in 1960 in which 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 was to last for 30 years. Entitled Oliver Reginald Tambo: The Modest Revolutionary (1917–1993), the exhibition has been produced by the Apartheid Museum, in association with the Tambo Foundation and the Airports Company South Africa (ACSA). It is presented for the first time in Cape Town at the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum.

“The victory against apartheid was the work of many dedicated and committed individuals; people who selflessly sacrificed to make the ‘better life for all’ dream a reality for the people of this country. It is appropriate that we pay tribute to OR Tambo – a struggle icon and people’s hero – at the Iziko Slave Lodge. Once a space associated with inequalities– a building with a complex and often painful history; today it is a space connecting us to our past, raising awareness of issues of human rights, equality and justice.” Says Rooksana Omar, Chief Executive Officer, Iziko Museums of South Africa.

Comprehensive in its scope, the exhibition covers Tambo’s early life and education in the Transkei, his training as a teacher, the difficult choice he faced of entering politics rather than the priesthood, partnership as a lawyer with Nelson Mandela, escape to exile, unfailing determination to build the movement in a hostile world, his principled leadership of the armed struggle and championing of the isolation of the apartheid regime. 

Having been 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 through troubled and immensely difficult times, while Nelson Mandela and the other leaders languished on Robben Island.

The exhibition concludes with the drafting of the historic Harare Declaration, which became the blueprint of the negotiated settlement and paved the way to 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 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 concerned that Tambo not be lionised 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 time,” notes Potenza. “He led by example, promoting women to senior positions and encouraging them 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 will begin 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.

This exhibition runs at the Iziko Slave Lodge until March 2014.

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