Man­dela and Tambo: a life­time as com­rades

A life­time as com­rades

Public Sector Manager - - Contents - Writer: Mary Alexan­der

The part­ner­ship be­tween Nel­son Man­dela and Oliver Tambo – as friends, lawyers and com­rades – lasted for over 60 years

“Man­dela and Tambo” read the brass plate on the door of the at­tor­neys' shabby of­fices in down­town Jo­han­nes­burg. It was late 1952, four years af­ter the Na­tional Party vic­tory, and the two young part­ners of South Africa's first black­owned law firm were busy.

“Man­dela and Tambo was be­sieged with clients,” Nel­son Man­dela wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Long Walk to Free­dom, pub­lished in 1994.“We were not the only African lawyers in South Africa, but we were the only firm of African lawyers.

“For Africans, we were the firm of first choice and last re­sort.To reach our of­fices each morn­ing, we had to move through a crowd of peo­ple in the hall­ways, on the stairs, and in our small wait­ing room.”

Oliver Tambo's mem­o­ries pre­saged Man­dela's. “For years we worked side by side in our of­fices near the courts,” he wrote in his 1965 in­tro­duc­tion to Ruth First's No Easy Road to Free­dom. “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.”

Tambo and Man­dela were highly ed­u­cated young men, the prod­ucts of in­de­pen­dent mis­sion­ary schools and the Univer­sity of Fort Hare. They thought they knew what racial in­jus­tice was all about. But their ex­pe­ri­ence of over­flow­ing hu­man mis­ery in their cramped lawyers' of­fices opened their eyes to the real suf­fer­ing of or­di­nary peo­ple.

Tambo wrote: “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 ...To be land­less can be a crime ...To brew African beer, to drink it or to use the pro­ceeds to sup­ple­ment the mea­gre fam­ily in­come is a crime ...To cheek a white man can be a crime.To live in the ‘wrong' area – an area de­clared white or In­dian or coloured – is a crime for Africans.”


Nel­son Rolih­lahla Man­dela and Oliver Regi­nald Tambo met at Fort Hare in the 1930s. The in­sti­tu­tion was renowned for pro­duc­ing lead­ing African in­tel­lec­tu­als for over 40 years un­til its proud aca­demic tra­di­tion was de­stroyed by the apartheid gov­ern­ment in 1959. Go­van Mbeki was a grad­u­ate, as was Robert Sobukwe, Den­nis Bru­tus and Can Themba.

This was the start of a part­ner­ship – as friends, at­tor­neys and com­rades – that would last 60 years. Man­dela would be­come South Africa's most fa­mous po­lit­i­cal pris­oner and first demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent, while Tambo joined the strug­gle in ex­ile and served as pres­i­dent of the African Na­tional Congress from 1967 to 1991.

The two had dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries of their first meet­ing. Man­dela, al­ways the sports­man, re­called it be­ing on a foot­ball field. Tambo, a stu­dious young man, re­mem­bered it at a stu­dent protest.

On Sun­days, Man­dela would teach bi­ble classes at vil­lages near Fort Hare.

“One of my com­rades on these ex­pe­di­tions was a se­ri­ous young science scholar whom I had met on the soc­cer field,” he wrote.

“He came from Pon­doland, in the Transkei, and his name was Oliver Tambo. From the start, I saw that Oliver's in­tel­li­gence was di­a­mond-edged; he was a keen de­bater and did not ac­cept the plat­i­tudes that so many of us au­to­mat­i­cally sub­scribed to ... it was easy to see that he was des­tined for great things.”

In 1965 Tambo wrote: “At the age of l6, Nel­son went to Fort Hare and there we first met: in the thick of a stu­dent strike.”

Tambo re­called that he and Man­dela 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.”

Life in Jo­han­nes­burg

Af­ter Fort Hare Tambo went on to teach maths at St Peter's School in Jo­han­nes­burg. Like Fort Hare, it was even­tu­ally shut down by the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment be­cause it gave its black stu­dents a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

“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,” Tambo wrote, “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.”

Man­dela, mean­while, fled to Jo­han­nes­burg from his Transkei home to es­cape an ar­ranged mar­riage.

In the city, Tambo wrote, Man­dela “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”.

In Jo­han­nes­burg both joined the ANC. They be­came part of a group of young ANC mem­bers who in­creas­ingly thought the or­gan­i­sa­tion was not tak­ing strong enough ac­tion to fight white rule.

The Youth League

Man­dela wrote: “Many felt, per­haps un­fairly, that the

ANC as a whole had be­come the pre­serve of a tired, un­mil­i­tant, priv­i­leged African elite more con­cerned with pro­tect­ing their own rights than those of the masses. ”They pro­posed form­ing a youth league “as a way of light­ing a fire un­der the lead­er­ship of the ANC”.

In 1943 a del­e­ga­tion in­clud­ing Man­dela, Tambo, An­ton Lem­bede, Peter Mda and Wal­ter Sisulu vis­ited AB Xuma, the head of the ANC.

“At our meet­ing, we told him that we in­tended to or­gan­ise a youth league and a cam­paign of ac­tion de­signed to mo­bilise mass sup­port,” Man­dela wrote. “We told Dr Xuma that the ANC was in dan­ger of be­com­ing marginalised

“From the start, I saw that Tambo’s

in­tel­li­gence was di­a­mond-edged. It was easy to see that he was des­tined for

great things.”

un­less it stirred it­self and took up new meth­ods.”

The ANC Youth League was formed in 1944 with Lem­bede as pres­i­dent and Tambo as sec­re­tary. Sisulu be­came the trea­surer and Man­dela formed part of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee.

The De­fi­ance Cam­paign

The Na­tional Party vic­tory in the white elec­tions of 1948 came as a sur­prise to many – in­clud­ing Man­dela.The stated elec­tion man­i­festo was overtly apartheid: ce­ment­ing, leg­is­lat­ing and ex­tend­ing black re­pres­sion and white mi­nor­ity rule.

“The vic­tory was a shock,” Man­dela wrote. “I was stunned and dis­mayed, but Oliver took a more con­sid­ered line. ‘I like this,' he said. ‘I like this.' I could not imag­ine why. He ex­plained, ‘Now we will know ex­actly who our en­e­mies are and where we stand.'”

The bat­tle lines were drawn.The softer poli­cies of ne­go­ti­a­tion and com­pli­ance with white lead­er­ship had achieved noth­ing.The next year, 1949, the ANC saw a jump in its mem­ber­ship, which pre­vi­ously had lin­gered at around 5 000. It be­gan to es­tab­lish a firm pres­ence in South African so­ci­ety.

In 1952 Man­dela and Tambo were key in or­gan­is­ing the De­fi­ance Cam­paign.The ANC joined other anti-apartheid or­gan­i­sa­tions in de­fi­ance against the re­stric­tion of

po­lit­i­cal, labour and res­i­den­tial rights, dur­ing which pro­test­ers de­lib­er­ately vi­o­lated op­pres­sive laws.The cam­paign was called off in April 1953 af­ter the apartheid par­lia­ment voted in new laws pro­hibit­ing protest meet­ings.

Ar­rest and ex­ile

In June 1955 the Congress of the Peo­ple, or­gan­ised by the ANC and In­dian, coloured and white or­gan­i­sa­tions at Klip­town near Jo­han­nes­burg, adopted the Free­dom Char­ter. This be­came the fun­da­men­tal doc­u­ment of the strug­gle. In the same year, Tambo be­came sec­re­tary­gen­eral of the ANC af­ter Sisulu was banned un­der the Sup­pres­sion of Com­mu­nism Act.

In De­cem­ber 1956 Man­dela and Tambo were among 156 lead­ers, key mem­bers of the Congress Al­liance, ar­rested and charged with trea­son. They in­cluded al­most all of the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the ANC, as well as the South African Com­mu­nist Party, the South African In­dian Congress, and the Congress of Democrats. A to­tal of

155 lead­ers – 105 African, 21 In­dian, 23 white and seven coloured – were ar­rested.

The trial was to last un­til 1961, with state grad­u­ally re­duc­ing the num­ber of ac­cused un­til all charges were even­tu­ally dis­missed.

In 1958 Tambo be­came deputy pres­i­dent of the ANC. But in 1959 he was served with a five-year ban­ning or­der. Tambo was sent abroad by the ANC to mo­bilise op­po­si­tion to apartheid. In 1967, he be­came pres­i­dent of the ANC af­ter the death of Chief Al­bert Luthuli.

In the year af­ter Tambo's ex­ile, 1960, came the Sharpeville mas­sacre.The ANC lead­er­ship con­cluded that non-vi­o­lence was no longer the an­swer to the strug­gle against apartheid.

In 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed, with Man­dela as its first leader. MK op­er­a­tions in the 1960s mostly tar­geted gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties. Man­dela was ar­rested in 1962, con­victed of sab­o­tage, and in 1964 sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment on Robben Is­land.


“Nel­son Man­dela is on Robben Is­land to­day, ”Tambo wrote in 1965.

“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.”

Tambo died in April 1993, a year short of South Africa's first demo­cratic elec­tions in 1994. South Africa's fu­ture was still un­cer­tain.

Man­dela gave the eu­logy at Tambo's fu­neral.

“Go well, my brother, and farewell, dear friend,” he said. “As you in­structed, we will bring peace to our tor­mented land.

“As you di­rected, we will bring free­dom to the op­pressed and lib­er­a­tion to the op­pres­sor. As you strived, we will re­store the dig­nity of the de­hu­man­ised. As you com­manded, we will de­fend the op­tion of a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of our prob­lems. As you prayed, we will re­spond to the cries of the wretched of the earth.

“In all this, we will not fail you.”

Chan­cel­lor House in down­town Jo­han­nes­burg, where in 1952 Nel­son Man­dela and Oliver Tambo opened South Africa's first black-owned law firm. (Im­age: South

African Tourism)

In­side Chan­cel­lor House, which is now a mu­seum.

(Im­age: South African Tourism)

Nel­son Man­dela and Oliver Tambo were both born in the Transkei, but they first met at Fort Hare Univer­sity in in Alice, East­ern Cape. The in­sti­tu­tion pro­duced many

of Africa's lead­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als. (Im­age: South African Tourism)

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