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Reviewed by:
  • Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains
  • Hugh Macmillan (bio)
Luli Callinicos (2004) Oliver Tambo: beyond the Engeli Mountains. Cape Town: David Philip

For all but the last few months of the thirty years that followed the ANC's banning in 1960, Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo, known to many as 'OR', and to his intimates as 'Bones', was the leader of the ANC in exile. After the death of his mentor, Albert Luthuli, in 1967, he became the de facto, but only latterly the de jure, leader of the ANC as a whole. A mild-mannered man, courteous in an old-fashioned way, an intellectual with the cautious demeanour of a country lawyer, ascetic in his personal habits, and moderate in his political beliefs, he was rather wooden as a speaker from a prepared text, but more effective ex tempore. His charm or charisma, and there is no doubt that he had both, worked best with small groups. He was highly respected by almost all members of the ANC in exile. He sought to make himself accessible to all and he never wavered in his conviction that the overthrow of apartheid required the widest possible combination of forces. He knew from an early date that apartheid would be ended by negotiations, and he did his best to ensure that the ANC was prepared for that eventuality. He has been rightly credited with performing a very difficult feat - leading and holding together a motley crew, and ensuring that the ANC did not suffer the violent internal squabbles that weakened the leadership of most other southern African liberation movements. He achieved this feat by placing himself as near as he could to what he saw as the centre of gravity of the movement, with one foot in the African nationalist wing and the other, with a little less weight, in the radical and socialist wing. He sought to perform a similar balancing act in terms of global politics, having to live with the Cold War, and trying with some success to gain diplomatic and material support from western social democrats, on the one hand, and [End Page 119] eastern, or at least Soviet, communists on the other hand. He did his best to provide for a growing number of exiles, many of whom became wholly dependent on the ANC. As Luli Callinicos points out in the preface, Tambo was the 'glue' that kept the ANC together.

Born at Kantolo in Pondoland in 1917 - like KD Mantanzima he was given one of his names in honour of the German emperor - he was the son of an enterprising and industrious father who was, for a time, a man of relative wealth. He had several mothers, but his own mother and father both died when he was fifteen. He was devoted to his youngest mother, but he found a new family in the Anglican Church. For Tambo there was never any doubt that CPSA stood for 'Church of the Province of South Africa', and not for 'Communist Party of South Africa'. Tambo is recorded in this book as weeping twice, once when Trevor Huddleston was compelled to leave South Africa by the Community of the Resurrection, and a second time when he was himself told that he could not take part in a risky and misguided attempt to land an ANC expedition on the coast of Pondoland. Although he had been working as a lawyer for a decade, and had held leading positions in the ANC, he was still seeking to be ordained at the time when he was selected by Luthuli to represent the ANC abroad. If he had not become the leader of the ANC, he might well have become the first black Archbishop of Cape Town. It is tempting to think that his model of the ANC lay in the Anglican Church - the 'broad church' designed to bridge the divide between Catholics and protestants - a church whose leaders have usually had to conceal their own theological positions, while balancing the demands of Catholics on the one hand and evangelicals on the other.

This is a big book; it is the result of over ten years' work and draws on nearly 200...


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pp. 119-123
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