Keynote Address by His Excellency, President Jacob Zuma, at the Centenary Celebrations of the birth of O. Reginald Tambo

President Jacob Zuma


The Tambo family,

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa

Premier Masualle and all Premiers present,

Ministers and Deputy Ministers,

Members of parliament and provincial legislatures,

Executive Mayor of the Alfred Nzo District Municipality and all Councillors present

Members of the Diplomatic corps

Traditional Leaders

The people of Mbizana and the province at large

Fellow South Africans

Sibingelela umphakathi wonke waseMbizana namaphethelo, nabantu baseNingizimu Afrika!

Usuku olubalulekile kakhulu lolo emlandweni wezwe lakithi. Sigubha iminyaka eyikhulu yokuzalwa kweqhawe lomzabalazi ubaba uOliver Reginald Tambo, owabamba iqhaza elikhulu ekulweni nengcindezelo nokuba Sithole inkululeko.

Today is a special day in our country.

We have come to celebrate the life of a remarkable human being, consummate freedom fighter and an outstanding leader of our people, Mr Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo, the longest serving President of the African National Congress.

OR, as he was fondly known by his comrades, would have turned 100 years old today had he lived.

Today is the culmination of a year of celebrations. Government declared 2017 the Year of OR Tambo, following a similar decision by the governing party the ANC.

Since February every national day has been celebrated in memory of OR Tambo, from Human Rights Day, June 16, Women’s Day to Heritage Day, our people have come together with a central theme of celebrating OR Tambo’s contribution and legacy.

Other major activities were the unveiling of a statue of OR Tambo at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg earlier this month.

Last month, OR was celebrated at the United Nations in New York, where South Africa hosted heads of state and government and other international dignitaries.

Earlier this month, we visited Lusaka in Zambia where President Kenneth Kaunda and the Zambian people gave us shelter and solidarity for 30 years.

One of the homes that were used by Comrade Tambo was renovated and has been declared a national heritage site by the Zambian government. We truly appreciate that honour from the Zambians.

The journey of celebrating our father and national hero has today brought us here, to his birth place. Born at this village of Nkantolo on 27 October 1917, OR Tambo grew up to be a preeminent leader of the struggle for the liberation of a people who had been oppressed for centuries.

As a boy growing up on the shadows of Engeli mountains, OR Tambo herded cattle and learned the ways of his people. He learned the values of Ubuntu and communal living.

He was deeply moved by the experience of the living conditions and political life of his community, near and far.

He dedicated his life to the upliftment and empowerment of the people early on in his life. He was already active in community organisations by age 16 when he became secretary of the Bizana Students Association.

He pursued this life of political and social activism even when he arrived at the University of Fort Hare as a student, where he met other leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe.

Tambo excelled in his studies and passed his Junior Certificate with a first class. At Fort Hare he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics and physics.

When he moved to Johannesburg, he joined a network of young intellectuals who met regularly at the home of Walter Sisulu. They included Anton Lembede, Jordan Ngubane and Nelson Mandela.

It was this cohort of young leaders who formed the ANC Youth League in 1944 and developed the Programme of Action which was adopted in 1949.

The Youth League leaders of which Tambo was a secretary transformed the ANC into a people-driven and people-centred organisation that it is today.

It was that generation of leaders such as Luthuli, Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and many others who led the ANC during the momentous decades of the 1950s and the 1960s which saw the ANC leading the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and the adoption of the Freedom Charter by the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955.

When the ANC took the decision for OR Tambo to leave the country in order to mobilise the international community against an increasingly oppressive and violent apartheid regime, that was to mark the beginning of a long and difficult journey for OR and the ANC.

His task included building the necessary international support network for the execution of the mandate of Umkhonto WeSizwe which was launched on 16 December 1961.

To execute his mandate Tambo had to shuttle between the capitals of the newly independent African states, Europe, Asia and the Americas to drum up diplomatic and material support for the liberation struggle inside the country and the growing number of exiles and MK combatants.

The arrest of President Mandela in 1962 and that of the MK High Command left OR Tambo and a few other senior leaders of the ANC and Alliance partners the primary responsibility to keep the whole Movement, inside and outside the borders of South Africa, united and in fighting form.

Lesser individuals would have despaired and even given up to pursue less stressful assignments as part-time revolutionaries.

But Comrade Tambo undertook this enormous responsibility with the strength of an elephant, razor-sharp focus and unequalled wisdom. He also remained humble, treating everyone he interacted with as the most important people he had come across.

In his engagements with heads of state and government, in regional and international summits Comrade Tambo appealed for support for the struggle of the people of South Africa and the southern Africa.

He was able to answer questions about the ANC from those who doubted the depth of its pan-Africanism, who questioned the revolutionary character of the Freedom Charter, the alliance with communists, openness to receiving support from the Soviet bloc and China and of course the pursuance of armed struggle.

Comrade OR would patiently explain why the ANC adopted its policy positions.

He earned the respect of his various audiences and together with his comrades, they succeeded to build a formidable international movement against apartheid and support for freedom fighters inside South Africa and abroad.

Comrade Tambo’s leadership in mobilising the international community put our struggle on top of the agenda of international bodies such as the United Nations and also the Organisation for African Unity. The declaration by the UN of apartheid as a crime against humanity is largely a tribute to his tireless efforts.

By the 1970s and 1980s more and more governments in the world were turning away from the apartheid regime and demanding the liberation of the oppressed in South Africa. OR Tambo became a recognised international statesman. It is befitting that the biggest and the busiest airport on the African continent is named after this international icon.

The statue of this icon at the OR International Airport in Ekurhuleni is also an appropriate tribute to a man who hardly had time for his wonderful family, because he had to travel all over the world to convince global capitals that apartheid was a crime against humanity and that they should support our struggle for freedom.

The government of the Free State Province, where our movement, the ANC was formed in 1912, has also erected a statue in his honour.

The respect and the standing with which our country is held in the world derive from the work that OR did mobilising support for our just cause.

Izwe lakithi lihlonishwa umhlaba wonke ngenxa yemisebenzi emihle yabaholi bethu abafana no Tata u OR Tambo no Tata uMadiba. Sihlala emikhandlwini emikhulu yamazwe njenge G20 nako-BRICS namhlanje, lapho kuthathwa khona izinqumo ezinkulu ngokuphathwa komhlaba wonke jikelele. Isisekela sakho sonke lokhu imisebenzi kababa uTambo owalakha igama lezwe lakithi emhlabeni wonke.

Ubulunga bethu kulemikhandlu yamazwe kuyasisiza kakhulu ngoba siyakwazi ukuthi sikhulumele izwe lethu ne-Afrika yonkana, ukuze sithuthuke impilo ibe ngcono.

In Comrade OR we learn that resilience and persistence are important traits when you are a leader.

He distinguished himself in leading the ANC when it faced some of the most intractable problems since its establishment in 1912. During his leadership of the ANC thousands of young people left South Africa to join the ranks of the MK and the ANC.

They were scattered in far-flung corners of the globe often under desperate conditions.

Sometimes the frustrations of living in exile under difficult conditions surfaced and morale often tumbled. It is thanks to his leadership skills that the movement was kept together, and that the struggle continued in earnest.

OR Tambo demonstrated his leadership when he convened the Morogoro Conference in 1969 to address some of the challenges facing the ANC in exile and to chart a way forward in the struggle for liberation.

The most critical outcome of the conference was the adoption of the Strategy and Tactics document, which was to guide the struggle for two decades.

Under Comrade Tambo’s leadership the ANC did everything possible to unite all the formations of the liberation movement inside and outside the country.

The ANC declared the 1980s the Decade of Liberation. Comrade Tambo led the ANC in forging closer links with the internal opposition to apartheid.

He made the call in the name of the ANC to make apartheid and the country ungovernable. He also led the preparations for the formal commencement of the negotiations of a peaceful political settlement in South Africa.

In this regard his leadership ensured that the international community and more importantly the Organisation of African Unity and the Frontline States, remained steadfast behind the vision of the ANC in those talks in the form of the Harare Declaration.

The life of Comrade OR Tambo is truly inspirational. He lived for one mission only, to see South Africa free, to see her people united and building an equal prosperous society, with no poverty or inequality.

He lived to see a just and equal society in every respect and to see people living a better life in better living conditions. Progress has been made in this regard.

Izithukuthuku zika Tambo aziwelanga phansi. UTambo akasebenzelanga ize. Izwe lakithi likhululekile. Abantu bakithi baphila impilo engcono kakhulu.

Millions of our people have access to basic services such as clean water, housing, electricity, clinics, better education, tarred roads, to mention a few.

Earlier this morning I visited the Nyameni family in Ludeke village where I switched on electricity as part of the broader government rural electrification programme in Mbizana and surrounding communities.  To expand water supply, the Ludeke Dam was officially opened as well to improve water supply to the community.

Millions of children from poor and working class families attend no-fee schools as government policy is that poverty should not prevent children from attending school.  They also receive meals at school to enable them to perform better. Health care has improved which is why people are living longer.

As a teacher, OR Tambo wanted to see good quality education especially for the disadvantaged black child. In his memory we urge all our teachers and learners to make our schools centres of excellence with the support of parents, the community and government.

There should be no violence in schools, no abuse of learners by educators and no abuse of learners by other learners.

There are many schools that are functioning optimally and the results become visible at the end of each year. They live the legacy of OR Tambo, the great teacher.

Izingane eziphuma ezindaweni ezifana neNkantolo neMbizana jikelele kufanele nazo zifunde njengoMongameli u-OR Tambo, zibe neziqu ze-Science ne Mathematics kanye namanye amakhono abalulekile.

On the economic front, the progress we have made during these two decades of freedom has seen a growing black middle class which should now be at the forefront of transforming the economy so that the ownership, control and management includes the participation and benefit of black people.

As the Freedom Charter states, indeed the people shall share in the country’s wealth.

OR Tambo also said this eloquently when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1976. He said:” We fight also for a South Africa whose wealth will be shared by its people equitably. We fight to abolish a system which obtains in our country today and which concentrates almost all productive wealth in the hands of a few, while the vast majority exists and toils to enlarge that wealth’’.

We take this opportunity to convey our gratitude to the millions of people in Africa and around the world who responded to then President Tambo’s calls for support for our struggle for liberation.

We are grateful to all the Frontline States that bore the anger of the apartheid regime that invaded these countries and also supported rebel armies to destabilise the newly independent countries.

The struggle is still not over for some of those we were in the trenches with.

In this regard we continue to stand in solidarity with the Cuban people who continue to experience an illegal economic embargo from the United States.

We also continue to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people as we did under the leadership of OR Tambo who developed close links with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.


President Tambo lived under constant pressure and stress, which at times affected his health. Given the demands of his position, he had little time to recuperate from illness.

He suffered the first stroke in 1989.

In April 1993 he passed on, so close to seeing his dream come to fruition, to see South Africans voting together to usher in democracy a few months later in April 1994.

At his funeral in 1993, a distraught President Nelson Mandela stated; “Oliver Tambo has not died because the ideals of freedom, human dignity and a colour-blind respect for every individual cannot perish”.

The celebration of the life of OR Tambo does not end today on his birthday. Other activities will continue until the end of the year.

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo will always be the pride of our country.

Let us continue celebrating the life and legacy of this outstanding Leader so that current and future generations will know about Oliver Reginald Tambo and also his dear wife mama Adelaide Tambo. We thank the Tambo family for being part of this journey of celebrating the life and legacy of this national hero.

Long live the spirit of Oliver Tambo!


Issued by The Presidency