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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Death Before Freedom

Book Title: Oliver Tambo, Beyond the Engeli Mountains
Author: Luli Callinicos
Publisher: David Philip Publisher, an Imprint of New Africa Books

Oliver Tambo, Beyond the Engeli Mountains is a story of a man who died three days before the dawn of freedom that he had fought for six decades. It is a social biography of one of the least celebrated anti-apartheid luminaries, Oliver Reginald Tambo, affectionately known as O.R. He led the African National Congress (ANC) now South Africa's ruling party during the tumultuous 30 years of exile (1960 to 1990).

Tambo was a visionary and a pathfinder. He founded the first black owned law firm in South Africa together with the International icon, and the now retired first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Tambo was born on 27 October 1917 in the rural hinterland of apartheid South Africa. He died on 23 April 1994, only three days before South Africa's first democratic all race elections. South Africa held its first democratic elections on the 27th April 1994.

The book examines the ways in which Tambo's own life experiences instilled in him diverse repertoires - homestead culture; Christian morality, education of the missionaries, and of course the radical revolutionary discourse of the time. In the words of those interviewed for this book, Tambo represented their own 'age of innocence'.

Tambo was thrust into the post of Acting President of the ANC accidentally after many leaders were arrested in the 1960's government clampdown on popular resistance following the Sharpeville Massacre. The Massacre occurred on the 21st March 1960, in the South African township of Sharpeville in the Transvaal (now Gauteng Province). During a peaceful demonstration held mainly by black South African protesters, the South African Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. Today, March 21, is celebrated in South Africa as Human Rights Day.

Author, Lulu Callinicos tells the remarkable story of a man who ran a quasi parallel government of South Africa in exile. Callinicos worked through Tambo's unfinished scripted memoirs, tapes, notes taken at meetings, and diaries kept over three decades at the helm of the ANC. She also conducted interviews with a range of anti-apartheid figures across the globe, ANC leaders, family and friends. She delved through ANC documents and archival material. The product of her (Callinicos) work is a complete and independent scholarly biography of a man who shunned the limelight. Tambo specifically requested that his biography be published after his death. During the exile years, he repeatedly refused to be referred to as President insisting that he was holding fort for Mandela (then prisoner on the South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison).

The book is rich in history and analyses of a period that ordinary South Africans knew little of as a result of the then apartheid government crack down on free media and free political activity. The biography is not just a story of Oliver Tambo. It is a story of the international community's participation in the struggle against racial oppression. The story of how Tambo ran a tight sheep - leading ANC cadres scattered across the globe - Russia, US, England, Denmark, Angola, Tanzania, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique among others. Tambo was able to manage the diverse repertoires and he came to personify the coherence and 'moral high ground' of the ANC Mission in Exile.

Tambo is presented as a complex figure - intelligent, deeply religious, an accomplished militant revolutionary but always affable.

Callinicos writing has lifted a lid on the dark chapter of South Africa. Oliver Tambo, Beyond the Engeli Mountains is a story of hope in the face of a recurring nightmare. A story of bravely of men and women who fought in the bitter struggle to liberate a country from the yoke of racial oppression. It is also a tribute to all those who died before seeing beyond the Engeli Mountains - the dawn of democracy.

Tambo was a consensus builder and the glue that held the ANC together during exile years. He was also a true internationalist in that he maintained warm relations between the West and East during the period of the Cold War. In recognition of this international role, the democratic government of South Africa has named the highest honour that can be bestowed on a foreign national (who have promoted South Africa's interests and aspirations through solidarity), the Order of the Companions of O. R. Tambo.

Bhekisisa Mncube is a qualified journalist and member of the Book Review Panel at the New Agenda academic journal in South Africa. Mncube is the former senior reporter (politics) at the Witness newspaper. He is also a columnist (Witness/Echo), his column 'On the High Road' appears on Thursdays.


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