Mandela-Tambo lecture 2011

“Mandela and Tambo: friends, comrades, leaders: legacy an inspiration for future generations

by Professor Denis Goldberg
Order of Luthuli (Silver), MK Founders Medal, Cross of the Order of Merit (Germany)


6pm, Friday 16 September 2011
City of Glasgow College, CBLZ Building, 190 Cathedral Street,
Glasgow G4 0ND


Programme Director

Allow me to greet our Honoured Guests


HE the SA High Commissioner (represented by Deputy)
Lord Provost of the City of Glasgow (represented by Councillors)
VC Glasgow Caledonian University (represented by Colleagues)
VC University of Strathclyde (represented by Colleagues)
Principle Glasgow City College
Chairperson of Actsa Scotland – and Honorary SA Consul, Brian Filling
They represent the sponsors of this annual series of lectures
And for those I may have inadvertently omitted, let me add: ‘All protocol observed.’


Ladies and Gentlemen.


It is for me a great honour to have been invited to deliver this lecture, though I would prefer to call it a talk because I thought I might tell you of my personal experience of these two great people who were also my friends and comrades and leaders: leaders of such calibre that we were prepared to follow them to the ends of the earth – and beyond. Not, I hasten to add, because they were populist rabble rousers, but because they were thoughtful, committed leaders who had a great thought, a vision, and with dignified, consistent readiness to find the necessary strategies and tactics they were ready to sacrifice their lives for that vision: a vision of freedom from racial oppression by law in the land of their birth, South Africa; a vision of freedom from want, and respect for the dignity of all people – for without dignity, we are all denied our essential humanity.

I have a comrade from Cape Town, Mildred Lesia, with whom I worked in the 1950s. She says what has been achieved is that black South Africans now feel they are citizens in their own land because they have the vote, can sit in parliament and be part of the law making process instead of being mere objects of the law, because we are now free from the ‘apartheid crime against humanity.’

I must add that our struggle led to the definition of that crime that consists of the conscious denial by states of human dignity, of oppression, of exclusion because of race from the rights contained in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and other such documents. It is a definition that is relevant today, for example in relation to the Palestinian people in the occupied territories.

I sometimes wondered why Scots should be honoring two South Africans. But there is a long history of contact between Scotland and South Africa. The early contact of course was through Scottish soldiers serving the British Empire in the conquest of South Africa. And also there were missionaries and educators who played an important role through institutions such as the Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape Province. Many leaders of the African people gained their knowledge of the modern world at that institution. The founder of the Lovedale Institute, Reverend Edward Govan, taught children of white officials and children of the country in the same classrooms. [Famous alumni include Z. K. Mathews, Govan Mbeki, Tiyo Soga, Charles Nqakula, King Sobhuza II, Ellen Kuzwayo, Sam Nolutshungu and William Wellington Gqoba. from Wikipedia] We are presently celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of Tiyo Soga, the “first” modern intellectual who sought to bring together tradition and modernism. He married a Scottish woman; studied in Scotland; and wrote many hymns.


Freedom of the Press, a burning issue today, was a burning issue in the 19th century and one Fairburn, played a prominent role. There is a considerable literature on the multiplicity of the links between our two countries. Since this is merely a talk, I shall leave it to each of you to follow this up.

More recently, we saw the role of the Scottish Committee of the Anti Apartheid movement and currently Scottish ACTSA in maintaining the links. The City of Glasgow recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of awarding to Nelson Mandela the Freedom of the City in 1981.

So it is not so surprising that the august Scottish institutions who have sponsored this series of lectures, and so many Scots, should be interested in my country and some of its greatest leaders. After all, your “workers’ poet laureate,” Hamish Henderson, wrote (in translation) in his Freedom Come All Ye: The fresh wind in the clear days dawning/blows the clouds helter skelter over the bay/ but there’s more than a fresh wind blowing /through the great glen of the world today/ It’s a thought that will go ….throughout the world.

He makes it clear that he is indeed writing about freedom and that also means freedom from harassment by Scottish soldiers (for the Empire of course): “broken families in lands we’ve harried/ will curse ‘Scotland the Brave’ no more, no more.” Racism will have been defeated – “black and white to each other married.” He says: “All the bairns (children) of Adam will find bread and barley bree (porridge) and painted room,” when “A black boy from yon Nyanga/ tears down the evil gallows” of the apartheid masters. Well the gallows have been torn down. And now we have set about trying to ensure that all the children of Adam shall have enough to eat and a decent home to live in. We South Africans are sensitive to nuances and would have preferred that the poet had said yon black ‘man’ rather than ‘boy,’ for those who led and inspired the young activists to overcome apartheid were indeed great men.

Mandela and Tambo, Tambo and Mandela, are two rare people whose lives are inseparable despite the years of physical separation, one in exile and the other in prison. They are two of the greatest of those many rare people in my country, South Africa, who would sacrifice everything for the goal of freedom and equality for all the people of South Africa. This depth of African humanism, what Archbishop Tutu calls Ubuntu, the guiding spirit of their political beliefs and actions, is what makes them so special. But of course they were, as I have said, great leaders, who inspired us in the darkest years, and now too in the brighter years of our freedom.


Mpilo Desmond Tutu, there’s another rare one, with Nelson Mandela a Nobel peace prize winner, and of course the names Chief Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, and FW de Klerk should be added to them. But those are the ones who achieved international recognition. There are many who played important roles yet have not had the same recognition. That is life! Oliver Tambo was not a prize winner like those I have named. For him and the others, freedom was the prize and their example drew FW de Klerk to lead the oppressors away from the continued deep oppression of apartheid racism by law.

OR Tambo is of course recognized: one of our highest national awards is the Order of the Companions of O R Tambo awarded to non-South Africans who have contributed to the liberation of our country from the apartheid crime against humanity and the reconstruction of our country after its liberation. Another award is the order of Luthuli, awarded to South Africans who contributed to the liberation of our country and its reconstruction.


Nelson Mandela has been recognized by the United Nations declaring his birthday, 18 July, the annual International Mandela Day on which we are asked to perform 67 minutes of service to people in need to honour the great icon of freedom, of belief in the dignity of all. Why 67 minutes? Because we are asked to give 1 minute of our time for each of the 67 years of his life given in the service of freedom and dignity.


It seems to me that it was the times we lived through that provided the conditions for the emergence of these people to greatness. The prize was not recognition by others. The prize was the achievement of freedom for all our people. I am sure everyone recalls Nelson Mandela’s closing remarks at the end of his four hour long address to the court during the Rivonia Trial. To paraphrase, he said that all his life he had fought against white domination and he had fought against black domination. He had upheld the ideal of a society in which all could live together in peace and harmony. He hoped to live to see that ideal achieved, but if needs be he was prepared to die for it.


From this we can see that he would not send others where he was not prepared to go. He knew that as a founder of the underground people’s army, Umkontho we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation, that owed its political allegiance to the African National Congress, his own life was at risk. He led from the front. I was present in the dock when that speech was made. It was a high point in my life to share that moment with him.


That speech transformed the way the struggle against apartheid was perceived. Here were serious activists with a principled position for democracy, against prejudice, for equality, for the equal rights of human beings.

At the end of the Rivonia trial the judge found us guilty of conspiracy to overthrow the state by force of arms, and related charges. In passing sentence the judge said that the death penalty was the appropriate sentence but he would show the only leniency he could, and we started to smile, Nelson too, and when the Judge said the sentence was life imprisonment, we laughed out loud. My Mother could not hear what the Judge had said and called out to me: “Denis, what is it?” My answer was: “Life! Life is wonderful.” Another great moment in all our lives.

Imagine what we as a country would have lost if Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu (and the others in that trial) had been sentenced to death and had the executions taken place. (At a personal level I have to report that I am quite pleased I am able to be here tonight.)

Oliver Reginald Tambo, OR as we called him, had been sent abroad to win support for the struggle against apartheid. He was a kind of super diplomat for the African National Congress. He had considerable success in Africa and also in Europe. He followed the ANC’s approach of mobilizing people to mobilize governments.

He and Nelson Mandela had first met in the 1940s in the newly formed ANC Youth League. They took seriously the proclaimed war aims of the Western allies in their fight against the Nazi regime with its allies in fascist Italy and militarist Japan and various middle European semi-feudal states. The allies proclaimed freedom and anti-colonialism as their war aims. Our people wanted to be sure that those goals were achieved. Nelson Mandela, with Walter Sisulu, one of our great political thinkers who had recruited Nelson Mandela to the ANC, OR and others especially Mda and Lembede, formed the ANC Youth league to campaign for an activist ANC to mobilize the masses instead of petitioning the government for their rights. Both Nelson and OR became lawyers and opened the first African law firm in South Africa. They had to have offices near the law courts and simply disobeyed the race based Group Areas Act that forbade them to ‘occupy’ premises in that area. Their offices became a centre for people who were actively engaged in politics. The two partners could have become immensely rich but freedom was their goal, not personal enrichment.

The two met again in North Africa and Britain when Nelson went abroad without a passport to canvas support for the armed struggle. They enjoyed being together and it is then that OR was informed of the decision to embark on the armed struggle. Many years later, in a BBC television interview, he was asked if he as a devout Christian had had difficulties in undertaking an armed struggle. His reply was that the difficulty was to delay taking up arms until our people were ready for it.


The consequence of this decision to take up arms was that OR’s task became much more difficult. Some governments that had given support now became lukewarm in their support for the ANC, and some were even hostile. Colonial powers are always strange about armed force: they use it at will with the utmost brutality, but question the right of the oppressed to use violence to be free! The task became harder as the ‘diplomat’ became the leader of a movement requiring transport and training facilities, supplies and military materiel. Working in the space between East and West in the Cold War became a remarkable exercise in principled political relations. OR was seldom at home and his wife Adelaide bore the separation and the burden of providing a home for him and their children with fortitude.

OR Tambo had been elected the Deputy President of the ANC before he went abroad and now was the de facto leader. He resisted assuming the title of President until his comrades in exile insisted that he should accept the title.

With the arrest and sentencing of Nelson Mandela and his comrades to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial, OR saw the importance of the speech Nelson made in the trial. OR’s campaign made Nelson the symbol of all political prisoners in South Africa, and the symbol of the struggle for freedom itself. Who can forget the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ campaigns in many countries of the world? Perhaps the great concert at Wembley Stadium was the high point with rock stars performing at what was a political rally when their managers usually want them to be non-controversial. With their celebrity they helped to turn the anti apartheid movement into a worldwide demand for governments to act against the apartheid regime. Towns and cities named streets and public places after Nelson Mandela. Glasgow was the first to award him the freedom of the city in 1981. Many followed suit.

Many universities awarded him honorary degrees. Often they wished to honour OR Tambo who declined the honour saying they should recognize Nelson Mandela instead. OR’s modesty was sincere. Personal glory was a diversion. Eventually the exile national executive of the ANC insisted that OR as President was worthy of honorary doctorates and that he should accept them in his own name too.

OR was tireless, travelling the length and breadth of Africa making speeches at international conferences, persuading governments to support our cause. Remember, this was at a time when travel was slow in piston engine planes. He travelled light, with a small suitcase and a portable typewriter hoping that each host in turn would provide his keep and pay for the next leg of his journey.

OR Tambo was a revolutionary thinker. He was a humanist. And he was a leader par excellence. He was a friend and protector of the young and vulnerable. When I was released and went to ANC headquarters in Lusaka, OR greeted me with an embrace and real warmth. He took me to meet NEC Members and insisted I should sit in the available comfortable chair while he sat humbly at my knee on a little stool. At this serious moment in my life we had a small dispute about who should sit in which chair. But that was part of OR’s modesty. The President said I was the honoured guest! I saw in the compound when he would come out ofhis office that everyone there would snap to attention and greet the ‘Comrade Commander.’ He seemed embarrassed and would seek out someone and discuss their families with them. He knew everybody and remembered personal details about all of us.

Some say he was the Moses of our nation leading us to freedom but not experiencing it himself. His travels and cares exhausted him. He led and held together a sometimes cantankerous exile movement for 30 years; holding it together when all seemed lost. In all that time there were two small revolts, a group of four, and a group of eight. The rebels could not stand against OR’s leadership.

That leadership consisted of the ability to find the common ground between dissenting groups – to accentuate the positive (and “decentuate” the negative, as Louis Armstrong would say). Of finding new ways forward to widen the support for our movement without losing sight of the ultimate goal I have described. So people of the West gave support, both political and financial, though not their governments. The exception of course was Sweden and the Scandinavians in general influenced by Olaf Palma who gave massive humanitarian support. As I said, military support from the West did not materialize – profits from apartheid were too significant for their ruling classes. The East bloc gave all the support at governmental level and official civil society contributed enormously, but the masses were not really mobilized. There, there was sadly a fear of the human rights we upheld and were fighting for.

Nelson Mandela and OR Tambo both were leaders who could find new strategies and tactics as the struggle developed and old ways no longer sufficed.

This was exemplified by the ANC Youth League in the 1940s, with the demand for mass mobilization; and the later Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign was an example of mass passive resistance. The turn to armed struggle after the mass murders at the Sharpeville and Langa protests against the pass laws in 1960 and the armed suppression of the General Strike in 1961 against the new apartheid republic constitution, was a key departure from previous policies. But armed struggle was seen as a political weapon to compel the apartheid regime to negotiate a political solution to the exclusion of Black South Africans from social, political and economic rights. That is what was stated in the manifesto of MK in December 1961: the people would eventually seize power but when the regime would be prepared to negotiate, the liberation movement would be ready to do so. That took 30 years and when the State was prepared to negotiate, OR outside and Nelson inside were prepared to uphold the principled position we had held – war was a means to an end and not the end in itself. There were misunderstandings of course. Communications between a prisoner and his comrades on the outside were never easy or secure. Nelson was able to pass a message to OR saying he was talking to the State. The “messenger” comrade read the letter and told others that Nelson was talking to the State. The hardliners who believed we should fight on, no matter how many lives were lost and no matter that we could not militarily defeat the state in battle, though the State also could not defeat our people, said that Nelson had capitulated. OR questioned Nelson who responded that surely their friendship of over 50 years was strong enough for OR to trust him. Nelson would not negotiate behind the backs of the leadership. He had said to his comrades inside prison that you cannot lead such a struggle when you are cut off as prisoners. But what he did do was use the prestige that OR’s campaign had given him to talk about the pre-conditions for substantive negotiations to take place. So here we see Nelson, the leader of the turn to armed struggle, now seeing that the conditions for negotiations were being achieved and having the courage to call for a new, but old, principle, let us agree to negotiate without giving up the preparedness to fight on. OR simultaneously, through Thabo Mbeki, his right hand man, was also negotiating with the state about the same things. Eventually the issue became one of stating our conditions for talks. The answer was there were no pre-conditions as long as negotiations were in good faith. What a leap into the unknown that was. It saved thousands of lives. We have to remember that the security forces of the apartheid state had lost all reason and all humanity. In the four years of the negotiations after Nelson’s release they murdered at least 10 to 12 thousand people and possibly many more in an attempt to force their own politicians not to negotiate the transformation. It is dangerous when the security forces believe that they alone have the answers to what are political relationships. Security forces believe that killing is the only answer!

It was 26 years after being sentenced in June 1964 that Nelson and I met again when he arrived in Sweden and many of us were there to greet him. He embraced me and said something like, ‘Its nice to see you again, Boy, after all these years.’ I put an ANC scarf around his neck. He always called me boy and as he is 15 years older I took it as an affectionate greeting.

OR had worked himself close to death having suffered numerous strokes during the 30 years of his exile leadership and then, having mobilized the world against the morally and now financially bankrupt apartheid state, and having guided the rebuilding of the movement inside South Africa, suffered a massive stroke. He was recuperating in Sweden and Nelson and his entourage were there to visit that country and of course OR. To see the joyful reunion of the two friends, law partners, comrades, leaders, was a special pleasure. OR simply glowed with delight for one of his goals, ‘Release Mandela,’ had been realized. He said he had diligently cared for the ANC and now he could hand it back stronger than ever.

There was a second Mandela concert at Wembley. OR could not be there. Nelson could attend this time. He paid such a handsome tribute to OR that many of us wept. The selflessness of the two of them was remarkable. We struggle today to imbue the next generation of leaders in free South Africa with these same attitudes. It is difficult in a world of media that constantly urge selfishness, and we all have politicians and officials who misappropriate public funds and ignore the very mass of our people for whom we made a revolution.

Despite the difficulties, we have achieved a great deal in only 17 years. Yes, there is impatience, yes we have massive problems of overcoming the apartheid legacy of maleducation and for half the population none at all, of an economy designed for unemployment of the masses because that way labour costs were kept low, problems of health care and the lack of a trained and experienced civil service needed to serve all our people. And above all an economy which now has around 40% unemployment in the formal sector. It was over 50% in apartheid times! Millions of people are now free to stream into åthe urban areas that cannot cope with the influx so that infrastructure and housing lag far behind. Even though we have built over 2 and a half million small homes in the 17 years of our freedom, we need to build another half a million. Those not yet housed are very disappointed!

The greatest difference from the past is that all the issues are open for debate and discussion as we struggle to uphold the rights built into our democratic constitution. And that is the legacy of our great leaders.

I thank you.