Born five years after the birth of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo spent most of his life serving in the struggle against apartheid. 'O R', as he was popularly known by his peers, was born on 27th October 1917 in a rural town, Mbizana, in eastern Mpondoland in what was then the Cape Province (now Eastern Cape). His parents had converted to Christianity shortly before he was born.
At the age of seven he began his formal education at the Ludeke Methodist School in the Mbizana district and completed his primary education at the Holy Cross Mission. He then transferred to Johannesburg to attend St Peters College, in Rossettenville, where he completed his high school education.
From St Peters, Tambo went to study at the University College of Fort Hare, near Alice, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1941. It was at Fort Hare that he first became involved in the politics of the national liberation movement. He led a student class boycott in support of a demand to form a democratically elected Student's Representative Council. As a consequence he was expelled from Fort Hare and was thus unable to complete his Bachelor of Science honours degree.
In 1942, he returned to St Peters College as a science and mathematics teacher. At St Peters he was to teach many who later were to, play prominent roles in the ANC. Among these were Duma Nokwe who became the first black South African Advocate of the Supreme Court and a Secretary-General of the ANC.
It was while he was in Johannesburg that Tambo threw himself body and soul into the ANC. He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League (ANC YL) in 1944 and became its first National Secretary. He was elected President of the Transvaal ANCYL in 1948 and national vice-president in 1949.
In the ANCYL, Tambo teamed up with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, Dr William Nkomo, Dr C.M.Majombozi and others to bring a bold, new spirit of militancy into the post-war ANC. In 1946 Tambo was elected onto the Transvaal Executive of the ANC. In 1948 he, together with Walter Sisulu were elected onto the National Executive Committee. This was of great significance to the ANCYL's efforts to change the ANC.
Instrumental in achieving this transformation was the Programme of Action, piloted by the ANCYL from branch level to the 1949 national conference at Bloemfontein O.R. Tambo served on the Committee that drew up the Programme of Action, which was adopted as national policy in 1949.
The Programme of Action envisaged the transformation of the ANC from an organisation that held public meetings and occasionally petitioned the government to a campaigning movement that would draw in large numbers of people through mass actions, Involving civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent resistance. It was through these means that the ANCYL hoped to change the ANC from an organisation addressing the African elite to a movement of struggle involving the mass of uneducated and unskilled Black workers.
Tambo left teaching soon after the adoption of the Programme of Action and set up a legal partnership with Neslon Mandela. The firm soon became known as a champion of the poor, victims of apartheid laws with little or no money to pay their legal costs.
During the Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws of 1952, Oliver Tambo was among the numerous volunteers who courted imprisonment by deliberately breaking apartheid laws. His law firm partner and colleague, Nelson Mandela was the National volunteer in chief.
The South African government's attempts to suppress the Defiance Campaign resulted in one of the first mass trials in South African legal history. Though he himself was not among the accused, Tambo was close to the trial. It resulted in the designation of Sisulu and others found guilty of organising the Defiance Campaign as statutory "Communists". (That is, though they were not Communists, in terms of the violations of the Suppression of Communism Act they had committed, the judiciary declared them "Communists" in terms of the statute.) One result was in 1955 Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of the ANC was banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered to resign his post as Secretary General.
Oliver Tambo was appointed to fill the post, pending ratification by the annual conference.
Hounded by banning orders and other restrictions, many of Tambo's peers were unable to attend the Congress of the People in June 1955.
Oliver Tambo was not only on the platform but also served on the National Action Council which headed the mobilisation for the COP. It was because of this role that Tambo found himself among the 156 accused in the marathon Treason Trial in 1956.
In 1958, Oliver Tambo left the post of Secretary General to become the Deputy President of the ANC. The following year, 1959, he like many of his colleagues was served with five year banning order. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Tambo was designated by the ANC to travel abroad to set up the ANC's international mission and mobilise international opinion in opposition to the apartheid system.
Working in conjunction with Dr Yusuf Dadoo he was instrumental in the establishment of the South African United Front, which brought together the external missions of the ANC, the PAC, the SA Indian Congress and the South West African National Union (SWANU). As a result of a very successful lobbying campaign the South African United Front was able to secure the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961. After this initial success the SAUF broke up in July 1961.
Assisted by African government, Tambo was able to establish ANC mission in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and in London. From these small beginnings, under his stewardship the ANC acquired missions in 27 countries by 1990. These include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, with the exception of China, two missions in Asia and one in Australasia.
The suppression of the 1961 stay-at-home strike led to the ANC adopting the armed struggle as part of its strategy. Tambo was again an important factor in securing the co-operation of numerous African governments in providing training and camp facilities for the ANC.
In 1965 Tanzania and Zambia gave the ANC camp facilities to house trained Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) combatants. In 1967, after the death of ANC President General Chief Albert J. Luthuli, Tambo became Acting president until his appointment to the Presidency was approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.
During the 1970s Oliver Tambo's international prestige rose immensely as he traversed the world, addressing the United Nations and other international gatherings on the issue of apartheid. He became the key figure in the ANC's Revolutionary Council (RC) which had been set up at the Morogoro Conference to oversee the reconstruction of the ANC's internal machinery and to improve its underground capacity.
When Portuguese colonialism collapsed in 1975, the ANC stood poised to take maximum advantage of the geo-political changes. Angola offered camp and training facilities for MK, and the long- standing relationship with Frelimo enabled the ANC to acquire diplomatic facilities close to South Africa.
In 1985 Tambo was re-elected ANC President at the Kabwe Conference. In that capacity he served also as the Head of the Politico-Military Council (PMC) of the ANC, and as Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Among black South African leaders, Oliver Tambo was probably the most highly respected on the African continent, in Europe, Asia and the Americas. During his stewardship of the ANC he raised its international prestige and status to that of an alternative to the Pretoria Government. He was received with the protocol reserved for Heads of State in many parts of the world.
During his years in the ANC, Oliver Tambo played a major role in the growth and development of the movement and its policies. He was among the generation of African nationalist leaders who emerged after the Second World War who were instrumental in the transformation of the ANC from a liberal-constitutionalist organisation into a radical national liberation movement.
In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke, and underwent extensive medical treatment.
He returned to South Africa in 1991, after over three decades in exile. At the ANC's first legal national conference inside South Africa, held in Durban in July 1991, Tambo was elected National Chairperson of the ANC. He was also chairperson of the ANC's Emancipation Commission.
Oliver Reginald Tambo died from a stroke at 3.10am on 24 April, 1993.