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Oliver Tambo, a Black African politician, and activist was born on this date in 1917.
Oliver Reginald Tambo was born in the village of Kantolo near Bizana in Pondoland, South Africa. His mother, Julia, was the third wife of Mzimeni Tambo, son of a farmer and assistant salesman at a local trading store. Tambo’s parents were traditionalists, but also saw the importance of western education, and he was sent to school. As he grew older, he developed a desire to leave home and gain wider experience and he enrolled at the missionary school at Flagstaff, called Holy Cross. His father could not afford his fees, but the school found sponsorship for him through two white-English sisters.
One of his older brothers, who was working as a migrant laborer in Natal, also sent a part of his wages to cover any additional costs. After five years at Holy Cross, he was accepted at St Peter’s, a well-known school for Black children in Johannesburg. For the first time, he was exposed to youngsters of other traditional African cultures, as well as too institutionalized segregation and white racism.
In 1933, when he was 16, Tambo was orphaned when both of his parents passed away within a year of each other. During this time Tambo, achieved an excellent pass, which resulted in the Eastern Cape assembly of chiefs, the Bhunga, granting him a bursary to further his education at Fort Hare University. Tambo initially decided to study medicine, but at the time no university medical school would accept Black students. He chose a course in the sciences, and three years later he graduated with a B.S. degree in mathematics and physics.
After his election as chairperson of the Students’ Representative Council of his residence, the Anglican Beda Hall, he organized a student protest and was expelled from Fort Hare. He went back to his home in Kantolo to look for employment in order to support his siblings and was offered a position as Master in Mathematics at his alma mater, St Peter’s. At that time Johannesburg was an exciting melting pot of cultures for young, upcoming Africans and Tambo soon became involved with Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede, Jordan Ngubane, and Nelson Mandela, a fellow student from Fort Hare. The group regularly visited the house of Dr. 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. In 1944, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), as well as the Women’s League, were established. Anton Lembede was elected chairman of the new ANCYL, with Tambo as its secretary and Walter Sisulu as its treasurer. In 1948, the National Party came into power, and suddenly a number of discriminatory laws were put into place. In order to challenge these laws, Tambo decided to study law through correspondence, and in 1952, he joined the law practice of Mandela, where together they assisted Africans in their struggle against apartheid. In 1953, Tambo was appointed as the ANC National Secretary in place of Walter Sisulu, who had been banned by the government as a result of the Defiance Campaign. In 1955, Tambo became engaged to Adelaide Tsukudu, a Youth League activist and nurse employed at Baragwanath Hospital, and they were married in December 1956; the couple had three children.
In the aftermath of the Sharpeville Massacre, Tambo went on a "Mission in Exile" to gain international support for the South African liberation movement. Tambo emerged as one of the foremost advocates of women’s rights within the movement.
During the 1980s, Tambo, as the president of the ANC, was increasingly recognized by the Organization for African Unity as a head of state in exile. He also promoted Nelson Mandela as a symbol of worldwide political freedom and resistance to racial intolerance. Tambo led the group that formulated the Harare Declaration and because of the grueling schedule he was subjected to, his health began deteriorating health resulting in a mild stroke in 1982.
Disregarding the advice of his medical advisers, Tambo did not ease his efforts, and in 1989, after the presentation of the Harare Declaration, he collapsed and suffered a severe stroke. While Tambo recuperated, Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were released. In December 1990, Tambo returned home and attended the first ANC Congress to be held inside South Africa since it was banned. Nelson Mandela was elected president of the ANC and Tambo its national chairman.
The remaining three years of his life, Tambo spent at his sister’s house in Kantolo, the home he had longed for during all his long years in exile. During the early hours of the morning of April 23, 1993, Oliver Tambo suffered a massive and fatal stroke. He was honored with a state funeral.
Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and
African American Experience
Editors: Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr.