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It’s not Oliver OR Madiba

Let me say upfront that I know that I am treading on dangerous ground. But by leaving things unsaid, we are saying something about those things.

How many of you reading this know Oliver Tambo’s birthday?

My guess is that not many. My anecdotal research has shown me that many of us know the birthday of Nelson Mandela, even Thabo Mbeki’s, but, for a reason I cannot understand, don’t seem to know much about OR — let alone his birthday.

I think it is a sad state of affairs. I blame those ANC members who spent years in exile under the tutelage of OR for not doing enough to protect his memory. That is why there were some murmurings when the Johannesburg International Airport was renamed OR Tambo. It is difficult to imagine anybody publicly questioning why an important and strategic national institution should be renamed after Madiba — even when so many already are.

I blame the ANC leadership because it has allowed “the media” to create an impression that the struggle against apartheid was similar to an episode of Zorro — with Madiba being the Zorro who alone was responsible for delivery from the anguish of oppression.

For a people who talk so much about collective leadership, these leaders ought to have known that by rightly praising Madiba’s name, it didn’t mean that OR’s legacy would be relegated to a cameo appearance in the history pages.

I can imagine some comrades concluding that I am talking nonsense because they know of OR’s contribution, but I think the real test is asking ordinary people if they know.

As I said, I know that I am on thin ice here. But if we were to compare OR and Madiba’s contributions to building the ANC to the formidable organisation that it became, OR would win hands-down. Of course it was not Mandela’s fault. He was in jail fighting the course on a different front.

Please don’t get me wrong and think I am underplaying Mandela’s contribution. I am merely saying that raising it at the expense of historic facts of the contributions of his comrades is disingenuous and could prove misleading when our children’s children read the history books.

Of course Mandela was in jail for 27 years. But it was not his Rivonia Trial co-accused’s fault that they were released earlier than him. He is father of the nation and no sane person could even attempt to debate this.

But still, it was OR who at the most difficult time of that organisation was there to pull it together and create a force with such impeccable international credentials that even Madiba’s jailers saw the wisdom of negotiating with him even when he was still a prisoner.

It was OR who had to make the decision that resulted in the dark days of the ANC such as Quatro detention camps and the killing of the organisation’s own comrades, some of whom would have been innocent of the charges for which they were ultimately executed. But history will record that those were difficult days and only with the benefit of hindsight can we afford to be cocky or judgmental.

The ANC leadership, especially the formerly exiled one, must take responsibility for placing OR in his rightful position and not allow itself to be dazzled by a body of media that wants collective memory to buy into the theory that there is space for only one on the podium of national greats.

Madiba is no doubt a great South African. But there is no reason to fete him at the expense of his many other comrades in or out of the ANC.

But if those who ate off OR’s table seem disinterested, pity those who fought on the same side of the same war but from different ideological trenches.

For the record, OR was born on October 27 1917.