Blog: Celebrating the life and legacy of OR Tambo

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Oliver Reginald – ‘OR’ –Tambo, the “quiet revolutionary” who led the African National Congress through the darkest days of apartheid, and laid the foundations for the liberation of South Africa.

OR Tambo dedicated his life to the struggle against apartheid, much of which he spent in exile, banned from his native South Africa by a repressive, racist regime, dedicated to defending the privilege of a white minority and the exploitation of Black South Africans.

His vision, leadership and values helped build the global anti apartheid movement which supported the liberation of South Africa. I am proud of the active role that our union’s predecessors and many thousands of UNISON members played in that movement, supporting those in exile and campaigning for equality, justice and an end to apartheid.

When he qualified as a lawyer in 1951, OR Tambo joined the first legal partnership run by black partners in South Africa. Thousands would turn to  Mandela and Tambo to defend them against the apartheid laws which criminalised countless innocent people.

Like many stalwarts of the liberation struggle OR Tambo was regularly arrested for his political activism. In 1954, when he became secretary general of the ANC, he received a banning order. Two years later was detained on treason charges.

Following the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 peaceful protestors were killed by the South African police, and the banning of the ANC in 1960, Oliver and Adelaide Tambo and their children escaped to London. Many of the ANC’s leaders had been detained on Robben Island, so the task fell on OR Tambo to lead the liberation movement from exile.

OR Tambo was a visionary who never lost sight of a democratic, non-racial South Africa. He recognised the need to build an international movement, and travelled the world inspiring many thousands of activists and trade unionists to campaign against apartheid.

He rapidly won the respect and support of many world leaders, particularly in Africa; persuading them to isolate South Africa and contributing to it being forced out of the Commonwealth in 1961 and suspended by the United Nations General Assembly in 1974. Governments, like the UK and US, who continued to defend the apartheid regime, became lone voices.

In the 1980s, OR Tambo began laying the foundations for the talks that would eventually end apartheid. He balanced mass mobilisation, the armed struggle, underground organisation and international solidarity to bring the apartheid regime to the negotiating table.

Despite being in exile, his call to “render South Africa ungovernable” was heeded by millions of South Africans in 1985.

OR Tambo always recognised that the morality of the cause would eventually defeat the brutality of apartheid. He ensured that the values the liberation movement was fighting for – democracy, rights, justice and equality – were enshrined in a bill of rights. In 1987 he laid the foundations for South Africa’s constitution, which would place these values at its heart, making it one of the most progressive in the world.

Sadly, he died in 1993, little over a year before South Africans finally won their freedom.

OR Tambo was a selfless, visionary and humble leader. He inspired millions in South Africa and across the world to campaign against one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.

As general secretary, I am so proud of UNISON’s campaigning in South Africa over the decades. As we mark this important anniversary, let us all commit to continuing our international campaigning for peace, for fairness and for social justice.