Nelson Mandela – a celebration of an icon’s life

Oliver Tambo expresses his thoughts on Mandela

Tuesday 21 June 2011 12:25

Oliver Tambo

Mandela and Tambo was the name of the law firm run by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in South Africa

Mandela and Tambo was the name of the law firm run by Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in South Africa

"As a man, Nelson is passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage. He has a natural air of authority. He cannot help magnetising a crowd: he is commanding with a tall, handsome bearing; trusts and is trusted by the youth, for their impatience reflects his own; appealing to the women. He is dedicated and fearless. He is the born mass leader." - Oliver Tambo


[Introduction by Oliver Tambo to No Easy Walk to Freedom: Articles, Speeches and Trial Addresses by Nelson Mandela, edited by Ruth First and published by Heinemann, London, 1965.]

MANDELA AND TAMBO, said the brass plate on our office door. We practised as attorneys-at-law in Johannesburg in a shabby building across the street from the Magistrates' Court. Chancellor House in Fox Street was one of the few buildings in which African tenants could hire offices: it was owned by Indians. This was before the axe of the Group Areas Act fell to declare the area "white" and landlords were themselves prosecuted if they did not evict the Africans. MANDELA AND TAMBO was written huge across the frosted window panes on the second floor, and the letters stood out like a challenge. To white South Africa it was bad enough that two men with black skins should practise as lawyers, but it was indescribably worse that the letters also spelled out our political partnership.

Nelson ran away from the Transkei to escape a tribal marriage his cousins and uncles were trying to arrange for him

Nelson and I were both born in the Transkei, he one year after me. We were students together at Fort Hare University College. With others we had founded the African National Congress Youth League. We went together into the Defiance Campaign of 1952, into general strikes against the Government and sat in the same Treason Trial dock.

For years we worked side by side in the offices near the Courts. To reach our desks each morning, Nelson and I ran the gauntlet of patient queues of people overflowing from the chairs in the waiting-room into the corridors. South Africa has the dubious reputation of boasting one of the highest prison populations in the world. Jails are jam-packed with Africans imprisoned for serious offences - and crimes of violence are ever on the increase in apartheid society - but also for petty infringements of statutory law that no really civilised society would punish with imprisonment. To be unemployed is a crime because no African can for long evade arrest if his passbook does not carry the stamp of authorised and approved employment. To be landless can be a crime, and we interviewed weekly the delegations of grizzled, weather-worn peasants from the countryside, who came to tell us how many generations of their families had worked a little piece of land from which they were now being ejected. To brew African beer, to drink it or to use the proceeds to supplement the meagre family income is a crime, and women who do so face heavy fines and jail terms. To cheek a white man can be a crime. To live in the "wrong" area - an area declared white or Indian or Coloured - can be a crime for Africans. South African apartheid laws turn innumerable innocent people into "criminals." Apartheid stirs hatred and frustration among people. Young people, who should be in school or learning a trade, roam the streets, join gangs and wreak their revenge on the society that confronts them with only the dead-end alley of crime or poverty.

Our buff office files carried thousands of these stories and if, when we started our law partnership, we had not been rebels against South African apartheid, our experiences in our offices would have remedied the deficiency. We had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people.

Nelson, one of the royal family of the Transkei, was groomed from childhood for respectability, status and sheltered living. Born near Umtata in 1918, he was the eldest son of a Tembo chief. His father died when he was twelve and his upbringing and education were taken over by the Paramount Chief. Nelson, Sabata, Paramount Chief of the Tembu and opponent of the Government, and Kaizer Matanzima, Chief Minister of the Transkei and arch-collaborator with the Nationalist Government, were educated together. At the age of l6, Nelson went to Fort Hare and there we first met: in the thick of a student strike.

After Fort Hare, we parted company. I went on to teach mathematics at St. Peter's School in Johannesburg. From this school, killed by the Government in later years because it refused to bow its head to government-dictated principles of a special education for "inferior" Africans (Bantu Education), graduated successive series of young men drawn inexorably into the African National Congress, because it was the head of our patriotic, national movement for our rights.

Nelson ran away from the Transkei to escape a tribal marriage his cousins and uncles were trying to arrange for him. In Johannesburg, he had his first encounter with the lot of the urban African in a teeming African township: overcrowding, incessant raids for passes, arrests, poverty, the pinpricks and frustrations of the white rule. Walter Sisulu, Secretary-General of the African National Congress in a vital period, befriended and advised and urged him to study law. Mandela studied by correspondence to gain an arts degree, enrolled for a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand and was later articled to a firm of white attorneys. We met again in 1944 in the ranks of the African National Congress Youth League.

As a man, Nelson is passionate, emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage. He has a natural air of authority. He cannot help magnetising a crowd: he is commanding with a tall, handsome bearing; trusts and is trusted by the youth, for their impatience reflects his own; appealing to the women. He is dedicated and fearless. He is the born mass leader.

But early on, he came to understand that State repression was too savage to permit mass meetings and demonstrations through which the people could ventilate their grievances and hope for redress. It was of limited usefulness to head great rallies. The Government did not listen and soon enough the tear gas and the muzzles of the guns were turned against the people. The justice of our cries went unrecognised. The popularity of leaders like Mandela was an invitation to counter-attack by the Government. Mandela was banned from speaking, from attending gatherings, from leaving Johannesburg, from belonging to any organisation. Speeches, demonstrations, peaceful protests, political organising became illegal.

Of all that group of young men, Mandela and his close friend and co-leader, Walter Sisulu, were perhaps the fastest to get to grips with the harsh realities of the African struggle against the most powerful adversary in Africa: a highly industrialised, well-armed State, manned by a fanatical group of white men determined to defend their privilege and their prejudice, and aided by the complicity of American, British, West German, and Japanese investment in the most profitable system of oppression on the continent. Nelson was a key figure in thinking, planning and devising new tactics.

We had to forge an alliance of strength based not on colour but on commitment to the total abolition of apartheid and oppression; we would seek allies, of whatever colour, as long as they were totally agreed on our liberation aims. The African people, by nature of their numbers, their militancy, and the grimness of their oppression, would be the spearhead of the struggle. We had to organise the people, in town and countryside, as an instrument for struggle. Mandela drafted the "M" plan, a simple commonsense plan for organisation on a street basis, so that Congress volunteers would be in daily touch with the people, alert to their needs and able to mobilise them. He no longer appeared on the public platform and few platforms were allowed us as the years went by, but he was ever among the people, guiding his lieutenants to organise them. During the Treason Trial these efforts at organisation were put on trial. Mandela went from prison cell to dock and then to witness-box, when the accused conducted their defence and he and his co-accused expounded the policy of Congress in court. The men in the dock were acquitted, but the trial marked the end of that epoch and the opening of a new one.

By 1960, virtually every African leader was muzzled and restricted by Government decree. There was no right to organise. In March, 1960, there were the anti-pass protests called by the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress, and the peaceful gathering at Sharpeville was machine-gunned. The ANC called for a national protest strike.


The country answered that call. The ANC was declared illegal, together with the Pan Africanist Congress. In a five-month-long state of emergency, virtually every known Congressman was imprisoned, but during the Emergency and even more so immediately afterwards the ANC put itself on an underground footing. Now Mandela’s "M" plan came into its own. Ever at the centre, pulling the strings together, inspiring the activities that, if apprehended, could mean long stretches in prison for ANC activists, was Nelson.

In May, 1961, South Africa was to be declared a Nationalist Republic. There was a white referendum, but no African was consulted. The African people decided there were ways of making their opposition felt. A general strike would be the answer. The strike was called in the name of Nelson Mandela. He left his home, our office, his wife and children, to live the life of a political outlaw. Here began the legend of the "Black Pimpernel." He lived in hiding, meeting only his closest political associates, travelling round the country in disguise, popping up here to lead and advise, disappearing again when the hunt got too hot.

The strike was smashed by an unprecedented police and army mobilisation. If peaceful protests like these were to be put down by force then the people would be forced to use other methods of struggle; this was the inevitable conclusion. The ANC was no longer merely a national patriotic front, it was an underground resistance struggle. Acts of sabotage shook the country from the second half of 1961. "Umkhonto we Sizwe" (the Spear of the Nation) had been formed and was at work.
I had left South Africa early in 1960, sent out by the ANC to open our office abroad. Mandela was then in prison during the state of emergency proclaimed after Sharpeville. I saw him again, astonishingly, in 1961 and 1962, when he left his hiding places somewhere in South Africa, was smuggled across the border and turned up at the Addis Ababa conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa to expound before the delegates the policy for the struggle of our organisation and our people.

In South Africa, the freedom fight has grown grim and relentless. Mandela went home to survive a perilous existence underground for 17 months until he was betrayed by an informer and sentenced to five years' imprisonment for his leadership of the 1961 strike and for leaving the country illegally. From his cell, he was taken to the dock in the Rivonia Trial to face trial with eight others - among them Walter Sisulu. The charge was sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the Government by force. The world watched that trial and knows the verdict of guilty and the sentence of life imprisonment.

Nelson Mandela is in Robben Island today. His inspiration lives on in the heart of every African patriot. He is the symbol of the self-sacrificing leadership our struggle has thrown up and our people need. He is unrelenting, yet capable of flexibility and delicate judgment. He is an outstanding individual, but he knows that he derives his strength from the great masses of people, who make up the freedom struggle in our country.

I am convinced that the worldwide protests during the Rivonia Trial saved Mandela and his fellow-accused from the death sentence. But in South Africa, a life sentence means imprisonment until death - or until the defeat of the Government, which holds these men prisoners. The sentences they serve are a scaring reminder that such men must not be wasted behind bars; that no solution to South Africa's conflict can be found, while the people are deprived of such leadership; that Mandela is imprisoned not for his personal defiance of apartheid law but because he asserted the claims of a whole people living and dying under the most brutal system of race rule the world knows.
[A Postscript: Nelson Mandela on Oliver Tambo: "Oliver Tambo is much more than a brother to me. He is my greatest friend and comrade for nearly 50 years." (Nelson Mandela in a message from prison, February 1985).]

 

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