EXCLUSIVE: OR Tambo’s forgotten speech at Chatham House

On October 29 1985, Oliver Tambo gave a speech at Chatham House in London. In it, he urged a reluctant British government to support the fight against apartheid — and expertly dissects the hypocrisy in not doing so. For decades, the speech was buried in the Chatham House archives. For its centennial celebrations, the think tank has made the speech publicly available for the first time, in partnership with the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation. Tambo’s daughter, Nomatemba Tambo, will be discussing the speech on a Chatham House webinar on Friday, July 10. This is an edited version of Tambo’s address.


Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need hardly say what a singular experience and what a great honour it is for me to have been invited to address this meeting at Chatham House. As you say sir, since the British Government does not as yet seem to be disposed to talking to the ANC, whatever might come out of such talking, to which the British people, opinion makers, the leaders of this country, is the best thing to happen in the circumstances and we are very grateful that you have come in such large numbers to hear what we would like to tell you about South Africa. 

Now, we are waiting today, because we are all concerned to do something about the South African issue. We would like to assume that we are all interested to see an end to the apartheid system. We are all interested to contribute what we all can to the birth of a democratic and non-racial South Africa. Something our people have striven for over many decades now. We would like to assume that you are with us in the desire to see the emergence of an era of peace, not only in South Africa but in the whole region of southern Africa, in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana. All these countries have known no peace since their independence and the one single reason for that has been the apartheid system which helped Portuguese colonialism, which found side by side with the Ian Smith regime and which, after that regime collapsed, took over as the dominant destabiliser, waging what was described by the leaders of southern Africa as an undeclared war against each of them.

Peace appeared to be coming with the signing of the Nkomati Accord. The African National Congress, understanding what the objectives, the true objectives of the South African regime were, did not think the signing of the Nkomati Accord was the beginning of an era of peace. We thought it would make no difference and we all know it has made no difference. When Piet Botha [President PW Botha] came to this country and to other European countries he appeared to be carrying a message of peace from southern Africa, that message has evaporated, it has disappeared. There is no peace. There can be no peace while apartheid endures. What we are certain to debate therefore is not whether the apartheid system should be abolished or abandoned or ended, but the ways and means to achieve these results.

And in our brief presentation today we will concentrate on some of those questions that have merged in the course of the worldwide discussion of what should be done to abolish the apartheid system, because that is the centre issue. We might usefully begin by posing and answering the question: is the Botha regime an instrument of democratic change? To broaden the question, can the ruling national party transform itself from a party of Afrikaners and white minority domination into a force for a non-racial and democratic society? I think it is common knowledge among all of us here that the answer the ANC would give to these two questions is no. We do not believe — the ANC does not believe — that the party of racist rule in South African can transform itself into a party of democracy. 


The raison d’être of this party is the promotion and defence of white privilege, the exclusive advancement of white interests at the expense of the black majority. The current leadership of this party has not hesitated to restate these objectives many times and in unequivocal terms. Consequently we cannot accept as meaningful any strategy for change based on the thesis that Botha has embarked on a reform process which will gradually knock down the edifice of white minority domination and privilege, brick by brick and erect a new political and economic reality in its place. 

The so-called reform programme which Botha and his supporters paint in such glorious colours is a set of measures elaborated and implemented in the context of Pretoria’s doctrine of national security. These measures have the sole aim of helping to defuse the explosive situation in the country, with a view to ensuring the permanence and security of the apartheid system of white minority domination. By their very nature these reforms must emanate from the top, they are an expression of the ideas of the ruling group, acting in its own interests. They are not the translation into policy of the wishes of the oppressed majority. The outer limits of this so-called reform programme are defined by the requirement that everything is subject to amendment, provided that such change will extend the life of the apartheid system in its most fundamental essentials. 

Apartheid is being, as it is said, reformed in order to tame the system of oppression and not to abolish it. That is the long and the short of that story about reform. In any case, we maintain that the notion that a criminal practice can be reformed or amended gradually into something other than a felony cannot be taken as a serious proposition. 

If apartheid is a crime against humanity, a crime against its victims, it is incapable of reform. It should only be ended and the issue is therefore again not how to amend, how to reform it, but how to put an end to it as a crime. It ought to be self-evident that the principal agents of change in South Africa must be those sections of our population who stand to benefit from the abolition of the apartheid system. Recognising the correctness of this rather mundane and obvious thesis, it ought also to be a straightforward matter of logic to arrive at the conclusion that those outside our country who seek change in South Africa are obliged to support those whom the apartheid system disinherits and not those who are the beneficiaries of the practice of racism and human degradation. 

The standard response to this will be, “Yes of course we support you, we support your effort to end the apartheid system, but we do not agree with the methods you are using to achieve your objectives.” 

That’s the idea that is gaining currency; that we must modulate our pressure on the Pretoria regime as a prerequisite to the acquisition of our liberty in all its fullness. In terms of our strategy, this amounts to advising us that we must abandon both the armed struggle and economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. 

The most sophisticated argument in favour of these positions is once more based on the thesis that we must rely on the Botha regime to institute the process of change. It is then proposed that we must conduct our affairs in such a way that we avoid two consequences, that is suggested that we conduct our struggle in such a manner that the Pretoria regime does not lose its supporters to its right wing. 

Secondly, it is said that a determined all-round offensive against this regime would drive the white population into a lather and make the process of change that much more difficult. But clearly we cannot predicate our conduct on the maintenance of order in power as the first argument suggests. Our task is to remove the white minority regime from power, whatever the guise it assumes, whether so-called reformist or right wing. The lather thesis puts forward a perspective which, in fact, does not accord with the reality of what has been happening to the white power bloc over the last few years. As the internal and external offensive against the Pretoria regime has mounted, so have divisions and conflicts within this bloc sharpened. Of course, we are perfectly conscious of the fact that there are large numbers of our white compatriots who will fight to hold on to power and privilege, to the bitter end. That is an inevitable consequence of the history of our country that we have to live with. 

And so we come back to the proposition which we have advanced over the years, this is that a people denied constitutional rights cannot be asked to use the constitutional means that are unavailable to them, to achieve their liberty. For us this is a matter of practical politics. 

In practice the Pretoria regime does not recognise that we have any right to an organised expression of our views. 

Mr Chairman, it is sometimes forgotten that when the ANC was banned in 1960 it had not yet decided on a policy of armed struggle, it was still committed to non-violent struggle. Today, the leadership of the United Democratic Front is facing charges of treason, despite its consistent adherence to a policy of peaceful struggle and if I may say so, only this morning we learned from the news media that more than 100 organisations in the Cape Town area have been banned from holding meetings. What are they to do? 

It ought to be clear, therefore, that we have no alternative but to fight on, not because we love violence, but because the choice we are faced with is to submit or fight. It will be interesting to recall that when the — what subsequently became the South Africa Act —  was being debated by the British Parliament, then only as a Bill, one of the participants, Lord Courtney, is quoted to have predicted in relation to the Act that was under debate, that the government of a large non-white majority by a relatively small white minority would lead to unrest, instability and danger. 

It speaks eloquently of the ANC’s commitment to orderly struggle, but 50 years, some 50 years after this statement was made, the ANC was still pursuing a deliberate policy of non-violence. Historians may well observe that since the ANC has been the principal organisation representing our people over a period of 70 years, the fact that unrest, instability and danger have taken some 70 years to emerge on the South African scene, is also a measure of the ANC’s reluctance to move away from non-violence. But what Lord Courtney said is the reality of today.  

Well, exactly because we had no desire to inherit a country that has suffered extensive destruction we have called on the international community to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime. Another demonstration of our attempts to avoid violence on limited scope, this is a peaceful method of struggle desired to weaken this regime and make the transition to a democratic society that much quicker and less destructive of people and property. No sensible person could seek chaos and destruction for their own sake. We do not seek these either. 

The argument for sanctions is also one against chaos and destruction. The argument against sanctions, did I say the argument against sanctions? The argument for sanctions is also an argument against chaos and destruction. The argument against sanctions, the failure to impose effective sanctions has inevitably led to the greater obduracy on the part of the apartheid regime, as well as the availability to the regime of the material resources to run the apartheid system and to wage war against our people and the people of southern Africa. There we shall continue to argue that a strategy which seeks the most peaceful change or, if you like, the least violent possible, must include sanctions. Our people are determined to liberate themselves. 

During the debate that I have referred to in the House of Lords, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Archbishop R T Davidson, discussing the colour bar clauses of the South African Constitution, felt that the House of Lords should accept the principle that for the present, that is at that time, it was justifiable to impose on the South African native, restrictions and limitations and quote, “Which correspond to those which we impose on children.” Needless to say, this view prevailed. That is how we end the situation we now live in. But, he also went on to express a hope, he believed that, again I quote, “The larger, sounder and more Christian principles will in the long run prevail in South Africa, as years advance.” Well, those larger, sounder and more Christian principles have not prevailed some 80 years after that statement was made. We are still subjected to limitations and restrictions such as are fit for children only. 

That is why, by the mid-eighties, our people can be expected to fight with great determination, especially surrounded as they are by a continent of free peoples, people who were not free when we started. Regardless of what happens, our political and military struggles will continue and will intensify because at all costs we must remove the crime that bedevils our lives. It is unfair to expect us to be less determined to remove our version of Nazism than the people of this country, of Europe, and the rest of the world were to remove Nazi Germany as the threat which it was to every nation. And I should like to recall that the great inspiration behind the apartheid system was, of course, not just national socialism, but Hitler’s style. We are still confronted in South Africa with that problem. 

The people of Namibia, the people of South Africa cannot, as I have said, be expected to accept anything less than what the rest of Africa has achieved in the period since the Second World War. We cannot be expected to pursue with less determination the goals which were sought by the peoples of the world during the Second World War. We therefore would ask the world community to support that struggle. 

It is fair to say that there are many countries, many peoples around the world who are not happy about the violent aspect of our struggle. Some prefer not to comment on that, but in spite of that they give us assistance and support and I’m not talking just about the socialist countries, I’m talking about countries around the world, including many countries in Europe. We have no doubt of their support, which is expressed in material terms. Countries which are firm on the issue of sanctions, countries which seek to impose pressures on the South African regime, pressures which would make it difficult for that regime to operate its criminal system. 

We therefore ask that you support us in our efforts to transform our country into a democratic and peaceful entity. We believe that in expressing your support you should amongst other things, join the campaign from the immediate and unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners. The British prime minister has expressed herself in these terms, we appreciate that. Demand that the Botha regime lifts the state of emergency, removes the army and the police from the black townships, abandon all political trials and release the detainees. 

We find that there is a tendency to put the onus of the conflict on the African National Congress, not on those who have their army deployed in the streets and shooting at children, unarmed children. 

The desire to break the cycle of violence swings to become a desire for the ANC, or an insistence that the ANC stops its violence. We think the problem is not with the ANC, the problem is with the Botha regime, the apartheid system. The ANC is helpless in that situation. Violence was thrust down our unwilling throats and we had to swallow it, after a very determined struggle to resist it, at least for 50 years. But certainly for a whole decade of the apartheid era we are helpless, we have only one duty to ourselves and to humanity and that is to do everything, to use every method to put an end to this crime, to this scourge on the conscience of mankind. We are helpless. 

The onus should shift from the ANC to Botha. What is he doing about violence? He is spreading his violence, he is intensifying it and naturally there is escalation. And as I have said, there is no way of interrupting that escalation unless two things happen, that at some levels of this conflict the apartheid system ceases to function or, before those levels are reached, international pressures are so strong that again, the apartheid system ceases to be operational. It’s the only alternative there is. 

If there’s a third alternative it is that we abandon our struggle and surrender. That is inconceivable. So we ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to urge the British government to impose sanctions against apartheid South Africa as a concrete contribution to the struggle to remove a system which this government, as well as the people of Britain, has denounced and continues to denounce as being abhorrent. Thank you very much.   

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Oliver Reginald Tambo
Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo, also known as O. R. Tambo, was a South African anti-apartheid politician and revolutionary who served as president of the African National Congress from 1967 to 1991.

Related stories

ConCourt asked to rule that Zuma must testify for 10 days next year

It is Zondo's legal end game and will leave the former president, his supporters and those implicated in state capture to increasingly play fast and loose at imputing political motive to the commission

Richard Calland: Not much has shuffled in the political pack

Stocktake at the end of a momentous year shows that the ruling party holds all the cards but has little room for manoeuvre

ATM withdrawal halts no-confidence vote against Ramaphosa

The party wants the court to rule on the secret ballot issue first, with the case set to be heard in early February

Andile Lungisa: Early parole for the house of truth

Disgraced Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa calls for a change of leadership in the ANC immediately after being released on parole

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never meet

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

Shadow of eviction looms over farm dwellers

In part two of a series on the lives of farm dwellers, Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni finds a community haunted by the scourge of eviction
Advertising

Subscribers only

FNB dragged into bribery claims

Allegations of bribery against the bank’s chief executive, Jacques Celliers, thrown up in a separate court case

Dozens of birds and bats perish in extreme heat in...

In a single day, temperatures in northern KwaZulu-Natal climbed to a lethal 45°C, causing a mass die-off of birds and bats

More top stories

Blast rocks Durban’s Engen refinery

Residents are being evacuated as firefighters battle to control the blaze

ConCourt asked to rule that Zuma must testify for 10...

It is Zondo's legal end game and will leave the former president, his supporters and those implicated in state capture to increasingly play fast and loose at imputing political motive to the commission

Carlos on Oozymandias’ goodbye grift

"Look on my works ye Mighty, and gimme 50 bucks!"

This is how the SIU catches crooks

Athandiwe Saba talked to the Special Investigating Unit’s Andy Mothibi about its caseload, including 1 000 Covid contracts
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…