Dali Tambo has the sort of look waiters took seriously long before Night Moves came undulating across the small screen.
Since being introduced to him at the ANC’s congress at Durban Westville University in 1991, I have had several opportunities to observe this effect over lunch: Tambo whooshes into one of the Top Ten restaurants clad in wide-brimmed hat, morning-after Raybans, his own version of the Nehru suit, usually black, and enough brass, glass, stone and precious metal jewellery to give Joan Collins a hot flush.
Greeting maître d’s like old friends, kissing the air near their cheeks if they’re women, pumping waiters’ hands and calling them by name, Tambo is ushered to the best table, seemingly oblivious to the whispering eyes of other eaters, forks poised midway between nouvelle plates and curious mouths, while he takes his seat. Waiters race back and forth proffering packs of Camel filters, vodka martinis (hold the olive) and telephone messages.
“Darling” he says, when the waiters have retreated to their pillars and posts, “it’s so good to see you.” No doubt he means it, but then he means it about a lot of people. Tambo’s presence, part Euro-chic, part Afro-aristocracy, draws people like paper clips to a magnet. He is warm, gossipy, funny, a good listener as well as a good talker, and yet the impression lingers that there are actually very few people with whom he feels unambiguously at home.
His mother, Adelaide Tambo, is one of them. Her 34-year-old only son has lived at home on and off all his life. She is, he says unhesitatingly, his best friend and. along with his late father, Oliver Tambo, his most important role-model. “I adore her,” he says simply, with none of the social chameleon flippancy that is part of his public patter. “I live at home partly out of a sense of tradition and partly because I love her the best. She’s taught me how to be a man without being macho; she’s taught me to respect and value women so that I generally prefer their company.”
Certainly Tambo has surrounded himself with women on Night Moves, from production assistants Barbara King and Tracy Edmonds to series director, partner and friend Persis Tozer. “I love the depth and sensitivity of women; I love what is generally perceived to be their ‘weakness’ — like their unreliability in killing people in battle.” Naturally enough, Tambo has been called “foppish”, “a dandy”, by one truly incensed 702 listener, a “bladdy homosexual”.
Tambo says he’s not gay but doesn’t care what people think. He even uses the raising of the subject to compliment his mother and two sisters for helping him “develop (his) female side”. Since he and his girlfriend parted shortly before he returned to South Africa two years ago, he has, he says, been in search of love — thus far unsuccessfully.
“When I told Tony Leon on my show that I’d been celibate for 18 months, I wasn’t joking” he says dolefully, dispelling the “myth” held by those who suspect him not of being gay but quite the opposite — a dangerous womaniser. He has always been interested in clothes — he and two friends used to sell Fifties dresses on a market stall in Paris when he was a struggling student of politics at the Sorbonne.
He is also, he says, hung up about his looks and has designed his own clothes for 10 years: I’ve always had a complex about my weight and in France I learned that if you want to hide there are interesting ways to do it. If I’m feeling puffy I put on a hat; no one notices that I bite my nails because of all the jewellery; I wear ‘fat-city clothes that keep people guessing about what’s underneath.”
Actually, Tambo doesn’t wear underneath (can’t bear socks or underwear), and, despite his rejection of clubby ties and City of London suits, people criticize him anyway. It’s not surprising: we’ve never seen anything like Dali Tambo on television. But apart from the swelling band of Night Moves fans who, hip to the change, have put Tambo at the prow of the Good Ship New South Africa, there are a lot of confused viewers about.
There those who resent his Africanness and those who resent his Englishness – the struggle brat who can’t speak Xhosa, coming back to lord it over the rest of us. In another time or place, he might have been called “cosmopolitan”. Instead, he says he understands the temptation to pin him to a piece of card reading “cultural freak”. “It wasn’t my choice,” he says, “I speak the languages I was exposed to as a child and, yes, having grown up in England I’m Anglicised. So, that’s Dali and I like who I am.”
It is a long way back to the beginning when the Tambos were forced to flee South Africa. Dali was a year old when the family arrived in London. While his father travelled the world on ANC business, Adelaide had to work erratic hours as a nurse to make ends meet. Dali was sent to boarding school from the age of four. The little Xhosa he knew was seen replaced by the Queen’s English of his school classrooms where dictums like “I am not a man, I am a gentleman” were seared into him through writing out the line countless times as punishment for “being naughty”.
Dali was the only black boy at the elite Lancing College in West Sussex and he remembers seeing his mother only three times each year when she would drive down in a taxi and shower him with sweets and new clothes. He saw his father even less frequently, and it was left to Adelaide and sometimes Father Trevor Huddlestone to intercede between the adolescent Dali and his busy father.
“When I started going to pubs my father called me up and said: ‘I hear you’re going to drinking houses? I’ll have to consult. Then he have to consult.’ Then he cared Huddlestone to ask him what he thought Huddlestone said he thought I was okay, as long as I didn’t drink too much.” Tambo grins at the memory and orders another vodka martini. He spent years pursing politics before realizing his passions lay elsewhere.
While studying at the American University and the Sorbonne, he lived with Dulcie September the ANC’s representative in Paris until her assassination in 1988. “She was my heart,” he says, ‘and, aside from my mother, the most radical woman I have ever known.” Under her wing, he worked in the ANC office and “got more excited reading about the Molotov Pact than any fiction’.
But then came the rite-of-passage soul search, which led him to the formation of Artists Against Apartheid with AKA-Specials musician Jerry Dammers in 1983. Inspired by the idea of doing something “for” rather than “against”, Tambo and Dammers lit up London with anti- apartheid concerts like Wembley in 1988 and the Mandela birthday bash two years later.
‘There were a lot of people like me who were politically involved but not really cut out to go around waving placards. We set out to popularise the liberation struggle, to pull in the youth by giving them something positive in return. ‘We all need heroes and heroines, and kids loved the fact that it wasn’t yet another politician droning on about apartheid, but someone up on their bedroom wall… What we did was to give the whole thing a sense of style.”
Dali Tambo, practically a one-man style council, has drawn heavily from this experience for Night Moves: ‘The show is saying to people that this isn’t just a nation of rock-throwers and fascist killers. It’s saying: look how normal we are. It’s saying we’re a nation, and Christ knows if there’s any nation that deserves its pride it’s us.” He also understands the fickle nature of fashion: “the timing (of Night Moves) is perfect.
Right now were treading untrodden paths, but I suspect that over the next two years well be super-seded by new shows, more daring shows, shows that will be going with the times. “It’s like me: my personal dominant culture may be European because that’s how it’s been for 34 years. Give me another 30 years and I’ll be a different Dali.”