Oliver Tambo: Acre by acre in a time of rupture?

Oliver Tambo was nicknamed Sekindima for his belief that the struggle had to be approached methodically — very much like the way fields were ploughed in his Eastern Cape birthplace. (Photo: Paul Botes)

Oliver Tambo was nicknamed Sekindima for his belief that the struggle had to be approached methodically — very much like the way fields were ploughed in his Eastern Cape birthplace. (Photo: Paul Botes)

“Looking out from my home, the site of it commanded a wide view of the terrain as it swept from the vicinity of my home and stretched away as far as the eye could see … the Ngele Mountains were a huge wall that rolled in the distance to mark the end of very broken landscape, a landscape of great variety and, looking back now, I would say of great beauty … but the nagging question was, what lay beyond the Ngele Mountains? Just exactly what was there? Were there people? What type of people? Were there towns? Were they like Bizana? ... This was an unavoidable question whenever you looked in the direction of this range. What did it conceal from my view?”

These are the questions that a young Oliver Tambo wondered about while growing up in the Bizana village of Nkantolo, surrounded by the Ngele Mountains in the Eastern Cape.
The life of the simple villager, who would become the president of the African National Congress for three decades in the wilderness of apartheid exile, has stayed with me ever since I read Luli Callinicos’s biography of Tambo Beyond the Ngele Mountains in my undergraduate years, as a student of political and international studies.

Tambo was an astute reader of his society and its ways of doing things. As a young student who aspired to a career in diplomacy, I was profoundly moved when I learned that he drew on his rural upbringing in his long-term strategic view of what the ANC needed to do to defeat apartheid. His comrades nicknamed him Sekindima because, as rural boy who grew up in Nkantolo’s agricultural fields, Tambo believed that the struggle for national liberation needed to be approached “acre by acre”, using the concept of indima, “a strategic, methodological way of ploughing”. According to Callinicos, Wilton Mkwayi recalls Tambo making a case to his comrades in 1958, arguing that in the struggle “you always take an acre at a time … That is sekindima — one by one. You can’t say now this strike must go forever until we are free. What are we going to eat?”

Tambo insisted on being practical and methodological in the slippery and dangerous context of struggle. I have been trying to think of what it means to act in struggle “acre by acre” in the current South African context, which is facing multiple and layered levels of political, social, economic and moral crisis. I am thinking about this question in the context of the struggle to decolonise universities in South Africa, in terms of financial and epistemic access.

My understanding of Tambo’s metaphor of life beyond the Ngeli Mountains is that education offers a tool for the oppressed to be able to better understand their circumstances within a broader global context, and to then practically gauge the opportunities for radical transformation and the time that such transformation would take. 

In a higher education context of militarised university campuses, targeting of individual and groups of students by university administrators and the police, cutting of department budgets, and a prevailing sense of anxiety, I am finding it hard to keep a clear and methodological view of the steps that we need to take in order to save the future.

In a week’s time, I will be attending the disciplinary hearing for my little brother and several of his comrades, who are facing multiple charges of intimidation, hate speech and incitement of public violence for their participation in #FeesMustFall. The stakes are extremely high, not only for the students who are being disciplined in this manner, but for the families who have given up their livelihoods for their children to access education.

The reality is that the university, much like the global international economy, can no longer remain in its current form. The students who are paying R300 000 or more for a bachelor’s degree know that very well. The curriculum that is meant to open the world to them does not prepare them to ask the critical questions that will enable to them to reimagine a new economic and social order that will not only save them, but will save the planet. This is what is at stake. The young people who comprise 50% of the unemployed in this country are wide awake to this reality.

I am not sure then that we can plough ourselves acre by acre out of this current local and global crisis. Callinicos observes that life in exile meant that Tambo “could not foresee the dimensions or the topography that lay before him”. The layers that need to be undone to make basic access to education available are jarring and urgent in the backdrop of an overwhelming national crisis. 

Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, reflecting on rebellion and the demand for “the transformation of the universities,” observes that it is important that universities be renewed and that universities should reflect the “context of reality” in which students exist. This process, as Freire argues, necessarily entails attacking oppressive “old orders”, as well as “established institutions in the attempt to affirm human beings as the subjects of decision”. In the South African context, and the diaspora, increasingly, young people who challenge institutions of power are being disposed of, silenced and punished.

Cornel West argues in Race Matters that we need to “look beyond the same elites and voices that recycle older frameworks. We need leaders … who can situate themselves within a larger historical narrative of this country and our world, who can grasp the complex dynamics of our peoplehood and imagine a future grounded in the best of our past, yet who are attuned to the frightening obstacles that now perplex us.”

In the social context of the country as a whole, and more specifically in universities, students no longer feel safe to ask tough, dissenting questions, to raise issues of racialised gender and class inequalities, because one is targeted by rigid, conservative leaders, and this raises important questions about the place of education as the practice of freedom and critical consciousness in South Africa.

Dr Siphokazi Magadla is a lecturer in the department of political and international studies at Rhodes University

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