This year we have heard from the great and the good about comrade OR Tambo, the late leader of the ANC – who led the ANC for many years, in exile. Some having served alongside Tambo, have sought to embellish their own credentials by passing themselves off as more authentic exemplars of Tamboism. Some having only known of Tambo from afar, have sought to elevate Tambo to godlike status among a pantheon of liberation struggle heroes-cum-gods. Thankfully I have been somewhat inured to the claims of both sides.
If Tambo was the archetype of a good leader, then why did he lead for so many years without a regular mandate, that is why the long interval between 1969 and 1985? Whereas if Tambo was the archetype of a liberation hero, then why did he not submit to being imprisoned along with his comrades, that is for the struggle credentials?
So Tambo was imperfect, human and susceptible to the ordinary course of political survival. Rather than work in the quarry on Robben Island, he chose to establish a network of support for the ANC in other countries. And rather than blood the ANC at regular intervals, he chose to lead for 2 years, then another 16 years, then another 6 years and then another 2 years – until his tragic death – a total of 26 years in command of the ANC.
Praise has been heaped upon Tambo for his own political skills, for his own nascent survival and for his own intrepid guile; yet the same praise is withheld when considering one who worked in Tambo’s shadow (Thabo Mbeki), and also withheld when considering one who worked in Tambo’s spectre (Jacob Zuma). And yet both are exemplars of Tamboism, and both have succeeded Tambo to command the ANC.
Thabo Mbeki was condemned for being aloof, when he displayed political maturity; and condemned for being tribal, when he displayed political acumen. Thabo Mbeki may well have served, with special treatment, under Tambo and may well have been groomed to succeed Tambo directly, and yet Thabo Mbeki is neither praised in the same way nor to the same extent.
Jacob Zuma was condemned for being factionalist, when he displayed political maturity; and condemned for being criminal, when he displayed political acumen. Jacob Zuma may well have served, without special treatment, under Tambo and may well have been groomed to succeed Tambo indirectly, and yet Jacob Zuma is neither praised in the same way nor to the same extent.
Regardless of this hypocrisy, we have to take cognisance of the fact that both Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu trusted in Tambo, and that both Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu submitted to being led by Tambo – both during and after the banning of the ANC.
What then is the actual lesson from Tambo? It would seem that at its core – survival and relevance are the two major themes. Tambo survived, during a time when merely existing was an achievement; and Tambo remained relevant, during a time when merely participating was an achievement.
For the people who get lost in the veneration, remember that in singing praise you don’t want to repeat mistakes, let us rather learn from what happened; and not entrench a history of mistakes that repeats itself.