This is the year in which we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Oliver Reginald Tambo, providing us with an opportunity to pause and reflect on the impact he had on our lives, and on the course of South Africa’s journey to democracy.
Growing up in Soweto in the 1980s the name of OR Tambo, as he was affectionately known, was a constant presence in my life. As the decade grew to a close it became increasingly obvious that the weight of pressure from the liberation movements would lead to the inexorable decline of apartheid and the rise of a new democratic dispensation.
It was a tumultuous period as the regime stepped up its repressive measures, silencing its critics, clamping down on the media and arresting leaders who dared to participate in the resistance. And then, the “talks about talks” became a reality, leading to a process that finally culminated in the democratic transition of 1994.
At school we sang songs about Oliver Tambo, extolling his leadership of the ANC and his success in mobilising the international community against apartheid and racial discrimination. The name of Tambo was on the lips of every school child in Soweto, together with those of Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Walter Sisulu.
As I grew older the inspirational history of a man who grew up in abject poverty in rural Pondoland — only to rise and lead Africa’s oldest liberation movement — became ever clearer.
He became a role model for me, my inspiration and my hero, not only for his leadership and abilities to keep together a movement through more than a quarter of a century in exile, but also for his humility and work that laid the foundations for a liberated, united and modern South Africa.
Much has been written about the early years of OR Tambo; about his role in establishing the ANC Youth League and in transforming the broader liberation organisations into a mass-based activist movement; about the law firm of Mandela and Tambo, which set up office in downtown Jo’burg to provide legal support to thousands of Africans who were denied their most basic of human rights in the shantytowns and urban slums of the big city.
What is less known is that he started off his career as a science and mathematics teacher at the “Black Eton” — St Peter’s College in Rosettenville — today known as St Martin’s School. One of his students at the time, the late Joe Matthews, who served in Nelson Mandela’s first Cabinet, later recalled how Tambo would challenge students by putting a mathematical equation up on the blackboard and inviting them to suggest solutions.
“This was his big thing; to encourage people to think. He taught people to be bold, not to be afraid of a problem you thought you didn’t know [how to solve]… because you were congratulated for making the effort and reasoning the thing out.”
It is this approach to knowledge and learning that inspired a generation of teachers who stood in front of classrooms in the 1970s and 1980s. They were educators with little access to teaching resources, but who were determined to impart genuine knowledge to young learners, despite the immense obstacles placed in their way by a state determined to prevent black children from gaining access to meaningful education.
As a young child and, later in life as a student, I was a direct beneficiary of the legacy of Oliver Tambo the revolutionary leader, but also of Oliver Tambo the mathematics and physics teacher. I studied science and mathematics and qualified as a civil engineer.
Today, at the South African National Roads Agency (Sanral) we are in a position to extend Tambo’s maths and science legacy to yet another generation of young people who find themselves on various rungs of the educational ladder. Through our Family Maths and Science programmes we introduce children and their parents — mostly from rural villages in the Free State, Eastern and Northern Cape — at an early age to the basic concepts of these subjects.
As they grow older we bring them to the campuses of the University of the Free State to obtain hands-on experiences in science laboratories. We collaborate with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to increase the number of learners who qualify to study for a degree in a science-related field.
Sanral offers sponsorships, bursaries and internships and, at the apex of the ladder, we lead and co-ordinate advanced research in a wide range of engineering and socioeconomic issues related to transportation.
We are delighted to work with progressive institutions and media such as the OR Tambo Foundation and the Mail & Guardian and to support schools and learners who require access to quality resources.
Sanral is going beyond roads to promote initiatives that contribute to the greater good of society. It is imperative that the life and example of OR Tambo rekindle the hunger for education and excellence in our society, because our collective future as South Africans depends on an educated and appropriately skilled youth.
The Sanral dedicates its education and skills development efforts in 2017 to the memory of a young boy from Nkantolo in the Eastern Cape, who was given an opportunity to receive a quality education through an extraordinary combination of circumstances and against seemingly overwhelming odds. OR Tambo used this education to inspire a movement, unite a people across racial and ethnic lines and prepare the way for a democratic, vibrant and modern South Africa.
Skhumbuzo Macozoma is the chief executive of the South African National Roads Agency SOC Ltd (Sanral)