OR Tambo – A life of sacrifice
As a young man tasked with ensuring OR Tambo's safety, Kingsley Makhubela got to see the great leader in action and learn valuable lessons from him. Makhubela shares some of those memories with PSM.
Kingsley Makhubela, CEO of Brand South Africa, remembers the valuable lessons he learnt from OR Tambo
The late struggle stalwart Oliver Reginald Tambo, who led the liberation struggle from exile after the arrest of most ANC leaders, was so committed to the fight for freedom that he barely rested.
So much so that he once annoyed the party's top brass by summoning them to a meeting on Christmas Day as they prepared to have lunch with their families.
This is one of many events that give a glimpse of how selfless and dedicated Tambo was in the 1980s, leading up to the historic negotiations that dismantled apartheid.
Brand South Africa CEO Dr Kingsley Makhubela, who was Tambo's head of security from 1986 until 1990, recalls that the struggle icon was dedicated to the mission of freeing apartheid prisoners and achieving freedom for oppressed South Africans.
Standing in solidarity
Tambo felt that in solidarity with those who were jailed by the apartheid government – former President Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu and many others, who could not see their families – he should sacrifice his time with his own family, dedicating his days to the struggle.
“He felt that every moment needed to be spent in the trenches, be it in Lusaka, Zambia, in our camps, motivating our soldiers,” recalled Makhubela.
At the time,Tambo's family was based in London. So, in December 1987, on his way from Moscow,Tambo stopped in London for two days to see his family before flying back to Lusaka on Christmas eve.
When they arrived in Lusaka on Christmas Day, Makhubela said Tambo went to church and later called a meeting of the President's Committee – which was the equivalent of today's ANC Top Six.
The President's Committee was made up of Tambo as the President, Alfred Nzo as the Secretary-General, Thomas Nkobi as the TreasurerGeneral, Dan Tloome, Chairperson of the Communist Party, Joe Slovo, Secretary-General of the Communist Party, and John Nkadimeng, Head of the South African Congress of
“He said:‘Kingsley, I want to convene a meeting of the President's Committee. We must meet in an hour's time'.”
Makhubela, who was in his midtwenties at the time, took it upon himself to remind Tambo that it was Christmas Day and the men would be spending their day with their loved ones.
“He looked at me, took off his glasses and said ‘sit down'. So I sat down and started asking myself – what have I done?”
‘Did you say today is Christmas Day?'Tambo asked.
‘Yes chief,' came the reply.
Tambo pressed further:‘So there is no struggle on Christmas Day?'
“I started feeling terrible, and he said:‘Are you aware that people at home are having a black Christmas? They are not celebrating Christmas? And their liberators are celebrating Christmas. When they are expecting us to liberate them, we are busy celebrating Christmas.
‘Are you aware there are people who are in prison now who can't even have a decent meal? And they expect us to liberate them and we are not struggling because it is Christmas Day?'
‘We have to prepare the January 8 statement, send a message to
our people, send a message to our troops on what we need to do, how we need to intensify our struggle'.”
Makhubela said at that point, he felt embarrassed by the insights that Tambo had shared with him, and went off to Nzo, who was at his son, Ike's house, for Christmas lunch.
When Nzo saw Makhubela driving in, he immediately said:“I thought you guys and the chief were having Christmas in London?”
And when he heard of the meeting he responded: “No, no, no, the President can't do this. He must relax, it is Christmas Day.”
After the explanation Nzo was clearly not impressed as he had to pack his lunch and go to the Presidential Committee meeting, which lasted well into the night.
Securing the most wanted man
Despite his age at the time, Makhubela found himself entrusted with protecting the apartheid government's most wanted individual in the 1980s, as Tambo led the armed struggle from exile at a time that Rivonia trialists were in prison and all political parties were banned.
Having grown up in Meadowlands in Soweto, Makhubela joined the ANC's underground structures at the age of 17 before taking his activism to exile in Luanda, Angola, where he received military training from 1980.
Along with other activists, Makhubela received specialised training in East Germany, which was centred on counter-intelligence and protection, among others.
Later, he was called up to work in Tambo's security detail under the command of Shooter Marcus. When Marcus stepped down as the head of Tambo's unit, Makhubela took over and stayed on until Mandela's release from prison on 11 February 1990 and later organised Mandela's security.
“I got a call when I was in Angola that I needed to report to Lusaka. When I arrived in Lusaka I was told that I was going to join OR's unit. It was one of the most prestigious units to join because to look after OR was a responsibility given to the most trusted cadres.
“It was not everyone who was chosen for the task and I kept asking myself why is the ANC trusting me
with this major responsibility? Maybe they had done their own detailed research.”
Makhubela later became responsible for recruiting other people, who had to be scouted.
“Sometimes we had to send people inside the country to check the background of individuals who were to join OR's unit because he was the number one target of the apartheid regime. Looking after him, you needed people who were screened beyond any doubts,” he explained.
And just how difficult was it to ensure the safety of South Africa's most wanted? Makhubela said at the time, the presidential security detail worked with various security structures, including Zambian security.
The President's security detail would decide on Tambo's movements, and depending on a threat assessment, reinforcements would be pulled in to secure meeting venues.
“There were instances where we would get information that there was a commando unit looking for OR, so we would move him from one point to the other. There was a core team that would know where OR was.
“We had instances where even the leadership of the ANC would not know where OR was and only those in his inner circle would know his whereabouts. There was a lot of trust and responsibility placed on us – remember some of us were only 25 years old.
“It was only later on, when one reflected on it that I realised that had anything happened to OR, I would have been lynched. It's actually frightening to think about now,” he said.
This was an era when other leaders in
exile were assassinated, for example antiapartheid activist Joe Gqabi in 1981, who reportedly died at the hands of the apartheid hit-squad after being shot 19 times while reversing out of his driveway in Harare.
Makhubela said at the time,Tambo was always surrounded by a unit of six closely-knit security officials.
“We would do everything, including ensuring that he eats, that he takes his medication, and in our team we had people who were good cooks. We had an old man called Mshengu … who was a very close confidant of OR and he knew what OR liked to eat. He used to love oxtail, that was his favourite meal,” he said.
Tambo the listener
He recalled that one of OR's strongest qualities was his ability to listen, he hardly ever interjected when someone else was talking.
“With OR, your seniority in the organisation did not matter. He would sit and listen. When we got to the camps with him, OR would take a walk when soldiers were taking a break and would surprise them in the bush. He would sit down and ask them about their ideas – ‘what is your view about the armed struggle? Why do you think we are not hitting enough targets?'
“And he listened to those people,” Makhubela said.
Tambo would reflect on the insights from others before responding to them, especially those who, at the time, felt like returning to South Africa to kill white people, he recalled.
Makhubela believes Tambo's
wisdom was perhaps the reason why a civil war was averted in South Africa.
“OR would take time to speak to the commissariat [a unit charged with educating South Africans about who the enemy is] and I think that was really helpful because it prevented an ethnic conflict – killing people because of the colour of their skin.
“That is why the moral cause of the ANC for many years was beyond reproach, no one would question who the enemy was.That is why the struggle was popularly supported by most of the white people across Europe because they believed in the justness of the struggle. We never killed people because of the colour of their skin – that was the distinction between us and the enemy,” he said.
A love for education
Makhubela said he would forever be thankful to Tambo, who was a Maths and Science teacher, for urging him and the people around him to pursue an education after the armed struggle.
Makhubela has a Master's degree in Diplomatic Studies and a PhD in Political Science.
“OR told us his stories about going to school and he was always keen for all of us in the unit to improve our educational skills. He kept emphasising that. Of course we were militant and wanted to liberate the country, but he emphasised the importance of education and that is why, later in life, I took it upon myself to improve my educational skills.
“When I got my doctorate, in my heart I knew I was dedicating this to him because I knew he would have been very proud,” he said.
After working in Tambo's security detail, Makhubela worked for Madiba for more than a year and later went to New York to work for the ANC mission at the United Nations at a time when South African political parties were locked in negotiations to dismantle apartheid.
After casting his vote in the first democratic election from New York, he returned to his country of birth in 1994 to join the then Department of Foreign Affairs as the Chief of State Visits, where he handled all of Madiba's state visits.
In 1996, Makhubela was deployed to Portugal as an ambassador until 2001. He was then posted to Nairobi as ambassador until 2005 before returning to the Department of Foreign Affairs as a Chief Director responsible for conflict areas.
In 2007, Makhubela was appointed Chief of State Protocol and in 2010, he was appointed DirectorGeneral of the Department of Tourism. He joined Brand South Africa in 2015.
Dr Kingsley Makhubela got to witness the greatness of OR Tambo first hand while serving as his head of security.
OR Tambo preached about the importance of education to his fellow comrades.