OLIVER TAMBO CENTENARY LECTURE
FOURWAYS
20 October 2012
Joel Netshitenzhe

The celebration of the lives of Presidents of the ANC constitutes more than just an opportunity to learn about history. Neither is it merely to marvel at the stars which rendered much light through the pall of darkness that apartheid colonialism cast over our country and its neighbourhood.

These celebrations are, in part, to express our appreciation of the sacrifices that have made it possible for us to stand tall as free women and men, at last with the opportunity to shape our destiny. By elevating the memory of the best among us, we are seeking to extract the best from within ourselves as individuals – members of the ANC and indeed citizens of a free South Africa.

In as much as the people are their own liberators, leaders are critical to the realisation of a dream: as organisers, sources of inspiration, forces of example, and paragons of transformative virtue.

In the current context, two dynamic circles attach to this observation.

Firstly, it is our strategic posture and policies that define the character of the ANC. In turn, the character of the movement should inform the quality of cadres that we elevate to positions of leadership. The quality of leadership, in turn, is fundamental to determining the level of popular confidence that the mass of the people have in the ANC, and – when all is said and done – whether we are able to implement our policies and realise our strategic objectives.

The second of these dynamic circles is the role of the state as one of the strategic sites from which the objectives of social transformation are carried out. For the state to undertake this task requires more than just constitutional prescripts. It should have capacity and it should enjoy popular legitimacy. Such capacity and legitimacy, in turn, depend in large measure on the quality and conduct of the leadership of the ‘ruling party’. When all is said and done, the quality and conduct of the leadership is critical in determining whether the state enjoys popular legitimacy and is able to meet its mandate as an instrument of social transformation.

In other words, good or bad leadership choices by the ANC have fundamental implications not only with regard to the narrow interests of the movement. As the leading ‘party’ in our country’s body politic, the ANC’s choices are critical in determining whether South Africa continues in its efforts of revolutionary transformation, or whether by dint of weak leadership, the ANC becomes, itself by commission or omission, the progenitor of counter-revolution – responsible for the reversal of the gains of democracy.

This is the challenge that the life of Oliver Tambo places before us today. He occupied positions of responsibility because, in his generation, he was of that crop of the best in the movement and in society. Through the example of his life, he continues to warn us that we should avoid the pitfall of doing the opposite of what his life represents. 2

In particular, to use criteria other than ability in identifying those who should be accorded the responsibility to lead, is to undermine the cause of social transformation. A defective leadership not only holds back the attainment of national objectives. It also presents a difficult conundrum for the movement: in that, to rationalise its bad choices, the ANC has to lower itself to embrace those defects of the leaders it has chosen, as its own defects. Steadily, these defects of the individual leaders become, by default, the collective property of the organisation, its own blind spots and its subliminal attributes in the public imagination.

Oliver Tambo represents the best example of how good leaders can contribute to forging excellence in the collectives they lead, and to raising the movement’s performance to a high pedestal. His incisive mind encouraged all of us to learn and to seek to understand connections among various factors in the dynamics of struggle. His application to the tasks at hand encouraged us to go the extra mile in carrying out the work mandated to us. His ethical conduct encouraged all of us to strive to be saints, defined, in Nelson Mandela’s words, as sinners who keep on trying. In the words of Bishop Trevor Huddleston: “It hasn’t come out nearly sufficiently … how much… ethical and moral principle mattered to [Oliver]; far more than any political philosophy”. [Luli Callinicos: Interview, 1993]

Attributes of a unique leader

In the invitations that I have received over the past few weeks to share views on the life of OR, there have been suggestions that some of us, merely by having been in the same surrounds as Tambo, in fact “worked with him”. At least for my generation, it is correct that we should protest this designation. This is not only because to be characterised as having “worked with” OR suggests that we are older than we actually are. It is also because, for many of us, there is no such thing as having “worked with” Oliver Tambo. Unless, of course, if “working with” applies to a pupil and a teacher; a player and a coach; an army private and a Field Marshall; a cog and a machinist.

So, if you were expecting reminiscences from an intimate working relationship, I will beg to disappoint you. Many of us may have operated in OR’s vicinity; but our experience was of respectful distance.

What, though, are some of OR’s attributes that our generation could discern?

Oliver Tambo commanded reverence and awe – not because he demanded respect or instilled fear. He simply towered above the rest: as an organiser, an accomplished intellectual, a master strategist and tactician, a source of inspiration, a force of example and a paragon of transformative virtue and revolutionary ethics.

In Katenge (the first formal large MK training camp in Angola after its independence in 1975), as new arrivals in Umkhonto we Sizwe, there were many moments when in march-pasts we forgot our instructions, missed our steps and miscued the military chants, in the sheer nervousness and excitement of having OR in our midst taking the salute.

Fully conscious of the responsibility he had to mould young, angry recruits into revolutionary fighters, he nudged, encouraged and, where necessary, admonished gently but firmly. Those of us who had the fortune of working in the Department of Information and Publicity (which resorted under his office) at the ANC’s HQ in Lusaka – including Radio Freedom and Mayibuye – can say that 3

we keenly experienced his leadership qualities to teach without explicit instruction, and to correct without humiliating.

If there was one trait in which he stood well above the rest in his generation, it was his precision with words; saying exactly what he intended, combining inspiration even in the darkest hour, stern rebuke of injustice, and a soothing diplomacy and gentle persuasion.

Across the ‘four pillars’

It is to state the obvious to say that the evolution of the ANC in its 30 years of underground existence bear the fingerprints of OR, especially after the Rivonia Trial and when he assumed the Presidency at the 1969 Morogoro Conference after the death of Chief Albert Luthuli.

Appreciating the fundamental importance of the four pillars of struggle and the need for appropriate balances among them, he used his strategic acumen and tactical sense of occasion to ensure that critical decisions and actions were taken at major turning points. From the United Nations, to the streets of various capitals of the world, the docks, the theatres and the sports-fields, he was instrumental in forging one the most powerful global campaigns of the 20th century, the world anti-apartheid movement. He played a leadership role in building Umkhonto we Sizwe and took active part in deploying its cadres, fully conscious of the fact that its success depended on the strength of the underground structures within the country and, as was later articulated, on ‘the people in political motion’.

As the popular struggle rendered it impossible for the apartheid regime to rule in the same old way, and as the regime acknowledged the intractability of continued oppression and repression, he gently led the movement towards negotiations. And by then, he had initiated processes that helped elaborate and refine the content of the national democratic society that we seek to achieve, underpinned by the ideals of the Freedom Charter.

At the conclusion of the Kabwe Consultative Conference in 1985, President Oliver Tambo made off-the-cuff remarks that have remained etched in the mind of delegates. To paraphrase: ‘many of you may have heard that I am not well… but I want to assure you that what remains of my health will be consumed by the struggle’. Rumours had been circulating that he had had a stroke; and to us he was gently, reassuringly and inspirationally letting us into the ‘secret’ as a good leader would. There, in the commitment of OR to the people’s struggle lies the greatest injunction to us who are meant practically to construct the society to which he dedicated his life!

The stroke that rendered him inoperative and from which he barely recovered happened in 1989 after he had criss-crossed southern Africa to seek advice from leaders of these countries on the negotiating positions that the South African liberation movement should adopt, culminating in the Harare Declaration, whose content was also embraced by the OAU and the United Nations. Working until late in the night and trekking from capital to capital with little rest, it was as if he had decided to fulfil a last mission of the mandate he received some 30 years earlier when he was sent abroad. One of the tragedies of our struggle is that South Africa, post-1990, never really experienced a healthy, vibrant and fully functional Oliver Tambo: we can only conjure up images of what the combined effect of a healthy Tambo and a Mandela – and other leaders of his generation – could have been on the evolution of the ANC and South Africa at large. 4

And so, in 1993, OR went to sleep forever, his life having been consumed by struggle. To quote Nelson Mandela at Tambo’s funeral:

“[Oliver] lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision. While he lived, …we could sense it, but never crystallise the thought that with us was one of the few people who inhabited our own human environment, who could be described as the jewel in our crown…

“While the ANC lives, Oliver Tambo cannot die!”

All-round leadership

The jewel in our crown to which Mandela refers includes the commitment of leaders of that generation to education and life-long learning. With regard to OR in particular, underpinning his thirst for knowledge was the fact that he was naturally gifted, emerging in 1936 with his classmate Joe Mokoena as the top students in the Junior certificate (Grade 10) national examinations, written by black and white students alike. After the Mathematics and Physics degree from Fort Hare, he later studied law – a unique academic versatility. In this context, Friedrich Hegel’s exaggerated but instructive observation about formal education, applies keenly to OR’s own character: “Education is the art of making men ethical… [because philosophical thought] … demands that mind be trained against capricious fancies, and that these be destroyed and overcome to leave the way clear for rational thinking.” [Philosophy of Right]

It is in recognition of this need continually to upgrade ourselves intellectually – even if we occupy positions of leadership – that the Organisational Renewal discussion document calls for a campaign to raise “the level of general education in the ranks of our movement”; and it includes as one attribute of leadership, hard skills and competencies required in modern society. For this to happen requires a cadreship that itself recognises the importance of education, as OR did.

Also relevant to the current environment is the quality that leaders such as Oliver Tambo brought to the ANC, rather than merely being made by it. Besides being a mathematician and lawyer, OR was also a teacher, a musician and a devout Christian who had intended to be ordained as a priest. As with Dube who set up the Ohlange Native Industrial Institute, Chief Albert Luthuli who was involved in football, farming, teaching and religious activities – to quote just two examples – these leaders were community activists in their own right.

In the current context, as we seek to renew the movement, this is one question that we will need to come back to over and over again: in this age of our location in government, is it sufficient that leaders of the movement should narrowly be ‘professional politicians’, with no other link with communities than being leaders of the ANC; and with no other skills than political activism? How do we recruit members and how do we elect leaders, and what profile should these enjoy in their communities and in society generally?

Current strategic challenges

Having referred to some of the lessons that we can extract from the life of Oliver Tambo, let me identify some of the strategic issues to which we need to pay attention as we prepare for the 53rd National Conference. This is proceeding from the understanding that, following in OR’s footsteps 5

also means developing a keen understanding of the current phase of struggle and the strategic and tactical approaches required to meet our fundamental objective: which is to create a national democratic society.

The first issue is about leadership in social transformation. There is no doubt that we have made progress in extending many of the rights enshrined in our Constitution to all South Africans. This includes some of the socio-economic rights that are fundamental to eliminating the social roots of apartheid colonialism. However, we should be the first to acknowledge that, while in many areas such as housing, education, health, electricity and water provision we have done well in broadening access, the quality of these services in many areas leaves much to be desired. Critically, the economic relations inherited from apartheid remain largely intact, with the majority of Black people still languishing at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. This requires a drive on the part of government, business, workers, and civil society generally to raise the level of economic growth, transform the structure of the economy, create opportunities for employment and self-employment, and significantly reduce inequality. This cannot be carried out by the ANC or by government alone. As such, part of the ANC’s responsibility in the current period is to lead society in forging a social compact informed by a long-term vision and programmes on how to get there.

This requires an appreciation on our part that the ANC is a leader not just of its members; but of society as a whole. Whatever we propose and project as our policies should be informed by the need to mobilise the overwhelming majority of the nation to work together to realise a common objective – a decent quality of life – which is in the interest of all, black and white, rich and poor.

This is the new phase of the transition to a national democratic society that we need clearly to define, informed in part by the ideals and programmes contained in Vision 2030 and the National Development Plan. At the National Policy Conference in June, we jettisoned the inappropriate notion of a “second transition”. But we need still to clarify whether we can and should in fact attach numbers, and by implication dates, to the phases of the transition to a National Democratic Society!

The second issue is the need to clarify in our minds and in our mind-set the place of the key tenets of our Constitution, in the context of its enabling role. We need to approach this issue appreciating that, what makes our Constitution progressive is not the so-called “political miracle” of the negotiated transition. It is rather its articulation of the four generations of human rights that should form the foundation of the ideal society we seek to attain: civil and political, socio-economic, environmental, as well as gender and communication rights. OR personally took keen interest in bringing these strands together, as the ANC was developing constitutional principles for a democratic South Africa. The Constitution that has emerged from this work provides the legal framework within which programmes of transformation can be carried out. We therefore need to challenge the notion that, where we have failed, it is because of the Constitution; and thus turn a blind eye to weaknesses of capacity, unbecoming conduct and sheer indecisiveness.

The third issue is about changing national consciousness and the shifting locus of political discourse. As the ANC succeeds in leading the process towards the attainment of a national democratic society, a trend is bound to set in in society, for other political parties to position themselves closer to ANC policies. Some will even try to appropriate our heroes and symbols. While there may be a sliver of opportunism in some of these actions by some of the parties, what this means is that national 6

politics is trending ‘leftwards’, towards the core positions of the movement – an achievement that we should celebrate.

However, as this happens, the ANC needs to distinguish itself from the rest not merely by hanging onto the coattails of Oliver Tambo and invoking the history of struggle. It should eloquently articulate the vision to which society should aspire. It should demonstrate in actual practice its capacity to lead in the implementation of that vision. It should display ethical conduct and respect for public resources. It should pursue unity in its ranks, even as it prepares for an elective Conference. But, as OR was wont to say, it has to be unity of purpose and unity in action in pursuit of the people’s aspirations. It cannot be the unity of the graveside in funeral rites to bury the ANC. It cannot be the unity of an unguided drift, or unity in corruption. It cannot be unity in undermining the very ethos of the National Democratic Revolution.

In brief, the ANC should act decisively to take society forward. By its deeds, it should retain and consolidate the confidence of society in what it stands for, in the midst of a changing domestic and global environment. Only thus will it reclaim the moral high-ground that it has historically occupied.

The fourth issue pertains to one of the central weaknesses in the current period, which is a failure on our part to articulate clear theoretical approaches to the challenges we face. One of these challenges is the need fully to appreciate and manage the dynamics of post-1994 class formation and how it impacts on the ANC. Some of these challenges are reflected upon in the Organisational Renewal document. However, the weakness is that we tend to approach these issues as problems of the mind – narrowly as issues about morality.

In reality, part of the success of the programme of social transformation is the emergence of Black middle and upper strata. But for many activists, the possibility personally to ascend to a better quality of life is through location in, or relations with, the state; or through leadership in the trade union movement, among students or other civil society bodies.

As such, a dependency is created for corrupt patronage. Desperation creeps in, as people cling to positions of responsibility, because there is no other platform for personal accumulation. The centre is unable to correct wrong things done by foot-soldiers on whom leaders depend in electoral contestation; and the beneficiaries of patronage in turn feel obliged to perpetuate defective leadership. Social distance develops between the leaders and the led; and the movement as a whole gets compromised. How do we manage these dynamics, beyond appealing to sensibility and morality?

So, as Tambo did in his time, we are called upon to debate, reflect, challenge paradigms, and search for new ways of understanding and doing things – the better to give coherent leadership to society. Mouthing slogans about ‘radical’ this and ‘radical’ the other will not help the ANC to play this role.

Lessons of the Marikana tragedy

In a sense, the Marikana tragedy and the ensuing mineworkers’ revolt are a concentrated expression of the deficits that the ANC, and indeed all of society, need to address. To the extent that the Danhauser coal mine accident of 1926 in which young Oliver lost uncle Mbizweni and brother Zakhele helped to shape Tambo’s life, Marikana and subsequent events should inspire us into a 7

deliberate programme of self-correction. Among the questions to which we should urgently find answers are:

 Is this a moment of a qualitative break with the past, as happened in mineworkers’ revolts of 1946 and 1987, in which employers need to re-examine their cost curves, today proceeding from the premise that workers should be treated as, and should themselves feel like, stakeholders in the mining industry; and balance this with the need to retain and create jobs?

 How do we deal with the hierarchy of the wage structure in the mining industry, taking into account the strategic position that employees such as Rock Drill Operators occupy, and appreciating the changing demographics of mine-workers in terms of age and levels of general education?

 How should companies in specific localities aggregate resources to ensure the implementation of social plans; and how should municipal and provincial governments be cajoled, capacitated and assisted to meet their obligations to provide basic services in settlements around the mines – working with the mining companies which can provide skills such as project management and even construction capacity?

 How do mainstream unions deal with the hierarchy and patronage that have infected their structures, poor management of leadership contestations and the debilitating tag of “sweet-heart unionism” that can undermine legitimacy on a grand scale?

 How do we speed up the process of enlisting the PGM sector into Central Bargaining arrangements; how should companies treat shaft-stewards in the work environment to prevent their isolation from the mass of workers; and should workplace forums be dismissed out of hand?

 How should stakeholders in the mining and other sectors deal with splinter-groups that resort to populism and violence; and where genuine alternative structures have emerged, are current closed shop arrangements adequate to manage this?

 Do we have a cogent explanation why South Africa’s platinum sector should be a price-taker when the country possesses some 80% of the world’s reserves of PGMs and can establish a platinum exchange?

 How should society and the state in particular affirm the principle that only the state and designated agencies should be legitimate bearers of weapons; and how do we correct a terrible ‘culture’ which we allowed to persist in the 18 years of democracy where individuals and masses of protestors brandish and use weapons and generally resort to violence?

 How do we assert not only the authority and legality of the democratic state, but also its legitimacy borne of popular confidence that it serves all the people and not only a privileged few, and that its leaders conduct themselves as deserving holders of that title of leadership?

These are some of the critical issues that the mineworkers’ revolt brings out in bold relief, with fundamental implications for labour and broader social relations going forward. Special pleading about plots, conspiracies and opportunism will not resolve the problems: the established unions, employers, the state and society at large need to work together to eliminate the opportunities that make opportunism possible.

Contained in the lessons of Marikana is a fundamental challenge to the ANC, as an organisation that lays claim to the title of vanguard of the National Democratic Revolution: there can be no excuse to 8

the fact that a crisis of this kind could arise and persist, without the organisational presence and leadership of the ANC organically asserting itself. Something indeed has gone wrong.

Nelson Mandela asserts that ‘while the ANC lives, Oliver Tambo cannot die’. Are we allowing Oliver Tambo to die? That is the question that we should answer by what we say and by what we do! And thus, we shall have honoured the memory of Oliver Reginald Tambo.

END

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