Remaining a 'trusted and very much loved' leader

Tambo's leadership style allowed him to act with integrity as an MK commander, which comes from his upbringing in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Rafs Mayet)

Tambo's leadership style allowed him to act with integrity as an MK commander, which comes from his upbringing in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Rafs Mayet)

At street demonstrations these days, it is not uncommon to hear one struggle song — Uma kungaqhamuka uTambo esibona sinje, angalila.

The struggle song, which means, “If (Oliver Reginald) Tambo could see us now, he would weep”, evokes deep sadness and foreboding at the current state of affairs in the country, such as massive corruption, credit downgrades, deepening poverty and alarmingly high unemployment, rape and gender-based violence against women and children.

This week, at least 250 people pondered these issues and more during the Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum held at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg, while honouring the memory of the late president of the ANC and celebrating the lessons we can learn from him.

The panelists were veteran ANC leader advocate Ngoako Ramatlhodi, social activist Sheila Sisulu and anti-apartheid activist Barbara Masekela.

Among the guests of honour at the Critical Thinking Forum was Luli Callinicos, one of the country’s most respected historians and the author of Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Ngele Mountains.

Callinicos is of the firm view that Tambo learnt some of his most important lessons about leadership from the meetings of the ibandla among the amaMpondo clan, often conducted by the local chief.

She said Tambo could possibly have found a way to manage some of the current contradictions prevalent in South Africa today, given his humble leadership style of inclusiveness and consensus-seeking, based on his culture and the knowledge imbued in him from an early age when he was growing up in Kantolo, a “remote village watered by the Umtamvuna River in a valley southwest of the Ngele range, which separated Natal from Eastern Pondoland”.

The historian said the amaMpondo — Tambo’s clan — had a consensus approach to decision-making, and this influenced Tambo greatly and was to play a profoundly important role in the ANC leadership of the party during one of the darkest periods in the history of the ANC.


In her paper titled “The Great Interpreter: Images of OR Tambo”, Callinicos writes that between headmen and the community, as well as between the chiefs and the people, there was always a balance of power when it came to conflict resolution.

“Consensus was all important. After thorough discussion, the chief and his advisers would get the feel of the meeting, Opponents of the plan were encouraged to speak out because people should not be like a stream that flows in one direction,” she writes.

Callinicos has written vastly about Tambo, and his political life and leadership.

She said that Tambo was an attentive listener who would often be the last person to speak during meetings after listening to every single person’s opinion. She said Tambo saw himself as an implementer of collective decisions.

“At the end of these meetings, after hours and hours of deliberations, he would summarize what was said by everyone in such a way that the decision was a coherent one.

Everyone would feel that they were heard and contributed to the discussion at hand. It was this consensus decision making that distinguished him from many leaders,” said Callinicos.

“Often at these meetings, people would not even take a vote because everybody would be satisfied with the way he presented and reflected on what everyone thought was the best way to go ahead with a decision. Joe Slovo, who believed in democratic centralism, admired OR’s skill. It was not necessary to take a vote because there was absolute trust. He would explain carefully why he had come to a conclusion.”

Callinicos pointed out that of the characteristics that distinguished Tambo from his peers was his ethical leadership.

“He was very ethical in everything he was doing — and running the organisation,” said Callinicos.

“He reminds us that one of the most important features of leadership is integrity. If you don’t trust the leader everything falls away. So good words don’t mean much if people don’t trust what those words mean. OR was trusted and very much loved. He was a humanist. He was a well-rounded person.”

Callinicos also broke new ground as a leader by managing to win over the international community despite the Cold War between the West and the USSR.

“It is remarkable that he won over everyone to support the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle — from the US and West European governments to the Eastern Communist bloc, Asia and African allies, and the Scandinavian countries,” said Callinicos.

“Because he was a leader with integrity they all trusted him even though he was also the supreme commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) at the time. He explained some of the contradictions — such as asking money for armed struggle while also asking for financial resources for education. He emphasised the need to support South Africa and political prisoners in Robben Island.”

The Angolan test

Callinicos explains that Tambo had a difficult task as ANC leader and supreme commander of MK, and had to move carefully between all these contradictions — traversing the world to support the armed struggle amid the abuse of power seen in the camps in Angola — most notably at the Camp Quatro detention centre — that was meant to root out enemy agents and dissidents.

After these abuses of power, Tambo took the initiative to sign the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocol 1 of 1977, in 1980.

On the occasion of the signing, Tambo affirmed that “We have always defined the enemy in terms of a system of domination and not of people or a race. In contrast, the South African regime has displayed a shameless and ruthless disregard for all the norms of humanity … It is the conviction of the African National Congress of South Africa that international rules protecting the dignity of human beings must be upheld at all times. Therefore, and for humanitarian reasons, the ANC of South Africa hereby declares that, in the conduct of the struggle against apartheid and racism and for self-determination in South Africa, it intends to respect and be guided by the general principle of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts.”

Callinicos said when the declaration in itself did not prevent the abuse of suspects and dissidents in the ANC camps, Tambo commissioned the movement’s finest legal minds to research and produce a code of conduct. They included among others Pennuel Maduna, Zola Skweyiya and Bridgette Mabandla.

In addition, he set in motion the updating of the ANC’s constitution, which he himself had been at the helm of revising in 1985. The ANC constitution, the code of conduct and the checks and balances in the structures received democratic ratification by the Kabwe Conference in Zambia.

“Tambo was taking steady, systematic and procedural steps to protect the movement and its values, while ensuring that it did not suffer another devastating rift among its most loyal and fervent members,” Callinicos writes in her biography of Tambo.

“Consistent with his principles, Tambo tried to rehabilitate them through careful deployment. Tambo’s way, perhaps a Christian way but also expressing a culture universally practiced in beleaguered communities and oppressed societies, was also the African way — to protect and defend one’s own; to counsel, to correct and to rehabilitate in private in order to protect human dignity rather than shame, even when the offence was grave. This priority in the culture of the ANC cost lives, pain and disillusionment and the suppression of transparency. The outcome was to haunt the ANC for many years to come.” Judge Albie Sachs later said of this episode that “one reason we have a strong Bill of Rights today was the painful lesson of those who ran Quatro: that even people with an honourable record defending a good cause can execute power in an abusive and inhuman way.”

Callinicos said Tambo was passionate about education — and his dream was to make it a key priority of government even in the new democratic dispensation.

Tambo, added Callinicos, was also committed to a non-racial South Africa, quoting him as saying: “We seek to create a united democratic and non-racial society. We have a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity. Using the power you derive from the discovery of the truth about racism in South Africa, you will help us to remake our part of the world into a corner of the globe on which all — of which all of humanity can be proud.”

Charles Molele

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012). Read more from Charles Molele

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