Speech by the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Mr Ebrahim I. Ebrahim, delivered on the occasion marking O. R. Tambo Month under the theme: “Celebrating the Life and Times of O. R. Tambo – In service of his country,” O. R. Tambo Building, 11 October 2013.

Programme Director,
Ambassadors and High Commissioners,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Management and Staff of DIRCO,
Our distinguished partners and stakeholders here with us today,
Captains of Industry, and business leaders,
Representatives of civil society from the length and breadth of this country,
Men and women of media,
Distinguished guests, and
Ladies and gentlemen

Much has been said at this esteemed gathering about O.R Tambo the man. The contributions that he made for his country, the sacrifices he made for his beliefs, the selfless and tireless manner in which he fought so that you and I could be standing here today…Free. Over and above being a brilliant strategist with an abundance of patience and the ability to outmaneuver the apartheid regime, what made O.R Tambo such a well-respected diplomat were the values that he espoused: Patriotism, Integrity, Humility and Passion.

Paying tribute at a funeral of a man he described as one tied to him by an umbilical cord which cannot be broken, former President Nelson Mandela had this to say about O.R Tambo;

(I quote)

“A great giant who strode the globe like a colossus has fallen.
A mind whose thoughts have opened the doors to our liberty has ceased to function.
A heart whose dreams gave hope to the despised has for ever lost its beat.
The gentle voice whose measured words of reason shook the thrones of tyrants has been silenced.”


For a man whose selfless contributions to humankind has shaped and influenced our present day outlook about the future of a new South Africa we desire, this was a befitting tribute. More so, an honour by his friend and comrade, the international icon Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who like O.R Tambo dedicated his life to serving others.

Our generation too must continue to pay tribute to Comrade O.R, a man who surrendered his very being to the people.

As a people, we owe it to him to remind ourselves of the values he espoused, the sacrifices he made, and the vision he had for the future of this country.  These constant reminders will ensure that, in our lifetime, his legacy continues to live on, to epitomize an embodiment of hope, and selflessness for the love of humanity.

Programme Director,

We should embrace the concept of Ubuntu…”I am because you are”, as a way of commemorating Comrade O.R’s life, generosity, contributions and selflessness to humanity.  Today, we should affirm that the spirit of O.R Tambo lives on, even in this building. It lives on because the ideals for which he sacrificed his life can be seen through our selfless service to humanity, by touching lives of those who are less privileged. 

Programme Director,

Knowing who O.R Tambo was, what he stood for and how he lived, the onus is upon us to ask ourselves a number of tough questions.

How do we, as diplomats honour his legacy?

Do we carry ourselves with the poise, respect and dignity that are required of our professions?

Are we too committed to going over and above the call of duty…in service of our country?

It is of the utmost importance that every single employee of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation understand, believe and espouse the values that O.R. Tambo so humbly possessed. 

To quote Honourable Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane: "It is a privilege and an honour to serve one's government. To be a diplomat and represent South Africa both at home and abroad, provides each and every employee of the department an opportunity to raise the flag high for our country and follow in the footsteps of the great men and women who charted the path so that you may today be diplomats in a free and democratic South Africa."

Throughout my years in this Department I have been humbled by the commitment shown by many of the colleagues here towards the implementation of our foreign policy.

Our job is not an easy one. Like O.R Tambo the call of duty demands that we spend months, even years away from our family, our friends and our homeland. We do this because we have a fundamental understanding of the importance of striving to attain the goals that were set out for us by great people, men like O.R Tambo who had an ideal – and were willing to fight tirelessly to see it realized - if not in their lifetime – then in ours. It cannot be forgotten that O.R Tambo passed away almost one year to the day that we held our first ever democratic elections, in which ushered in an African National Congress led government.

It has been almost 20 years since the dawn of our democracy. And it cannot be disputed that much has been achieved. But the national democratic revolution is far from achieved. Much remains to be done. The responsibility then falls on our shoulders to take the baton that O.R Tambo passed on to us.

Colleagues, you may recall that three years ago we launched the DIRCO O.R Tambo Campaign. The “I am A Diplomat Campaign” sought to inculcate the values that O.R Tambo the diplomat and the man espoused.  We are here today to launch the second phase of this campaign. As we reflect on the life and times of this great leader we ask you to stop and ask yourselves what you are doing to carry on his legacy.


Do we carry ourselves with the poise, respect and dignity that are required of diplomats?

Do we work to ensure that we are truly Ambassadors of South Africa – not just at work, but in the way we lead our lives?

Do we carry out our work with Patriotism, Integrity, Humility and Passion?

Are we too committed to going over and above the call of duty to ensure that the hard won freedoms of the years before are enjoyed by all the citizens of this great nation?

Early Childhood Days

From his early childhood days, O.R Tambo was endowed with leadership qualities discernible in the way he conducted himself at home, school, and amongst his peers. Born five years after the birth of the African National Congress (ANC), on 27 October 1917, O.R, through his actions convinced many that he was a born leader.

From humble beginnings, at an early age, he already knew that in order to advance greatness in humanity, he had to make a choice - to submit or fight. He chose to fight. He made this choice because he wanted to lead a life of selflessness, a life that would change the lives of many who endured a life under the repressive regime of apartheid.  Naturally, he felt a strong sense to take up positions of responsibility, more often, a burden bestowed upon those older than him. But for him, age was never a deterrent to the leadership role he wanted to play.

As a result of the self-taught principles, he was so molded for his future as a leader that he often found himself on the wrong side of the law. At a time when democracy was a preserve of a few, O.R already understood that for the majority to be fully enjoy their liberty and freedom, democracy had to reign supreme for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, creed, religion, gender and political affiliation. This democracy had to belong to all of us. It is perhaps because of his ideals of democracy that he cherished which led to his expulsion from College, during his early days as a Science student. He had led a class boycott in support of a demand to form a democratically elected Student's Representative Council at the college. 

These were the early days that inspired his desire to contribute towards the creation of a democratic society. But this desire, at the time, had to start on a small scale. Little did he know that, years later, he would influence processes leading into the establishment of a democratic system in South Africa.

Comrade O.R, despite his ill health at the time, was able to contribute a lot of information that he had archived, dating back to his days in exile when he lobbied for sanctions against the national party government. These records, containing the ANC strategies on governance, were instrumental in assisting the process of engagement amongst different parties.

He did so in part because our transition to democracy was a critical process for the country in dismantling Apartheid and white minority rule. From the 1980s, several events that preceded the transition punctuated the process that led to the negotiations. Informal meetings between representatives of the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) laid ground for formal meetings where decisions were made to commence the negotiations.

This is why the convening of the Convention for Democratic South Africa (COSESA), in December 1991 brought together various political, civil, religious and community organizations to chart the future for a new and democratic South Africa.

His Political Life

At the age of 16, while on holiday in Kantolo, Tambo and some friends formed the Bizana Students Association (BSA). He was elected secretary of the organization, and Caledon Mda was elected Chairperson. The aim of the BSA was to mobilize students during the holidays and engage them in organized activities.

Later, Comrade O.R was offered the position of Head Prefect at school but declined in favour of another student. Instead, he took up the position of Deputy Head Prefect. It was at this stage in his life that he faced a watershed moment when tragedy struck in his family – he lost his parents a year of each other.

This tragedy was the beginning of his insatiable appetite for politics – a strategy he used to occupy himself. Since then, he dedicated his life to serving his people. It was while he was in Johannesburg that Tambo threw himself, body and soul, into the ANC. He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League (ANC YL) in 1944, and became its first National Secretary. He was elected President of the Transvaal ANCYL in 1948 and national vice-president in 1949. In the ANCYL, Tambo teamed up with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, Dr William Nkomo, Dr C.M. Majombozi and others to bring a bold, new spirit of militancy into the post-war ANC.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In 1946 Tambo was elected onto the Transvaal Executive of the ANC, where he drew in large numbers of people through mass actions, involving civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent resistance.

One result was in 1955 when Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of the ANC was banned in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act and ordered to resign his post as Secretary General. Oliver Tambo was appointed to fill the post, pending ratification by the annual conference. Hounded by banning orders and other restrictions, Tambo and many of his peers were unable to attend the Congress of the People in June 1955. But because of his role in the ANC he found himself among the 156 accused in the marathon treason trial 1956.

In 1958, Oliver Tambo left the post of Secretary General to become the Deputy President of the ANC. The following year, 1959, he, like many of his colleagues, was served with a five year banning order. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Tambo was designated by the ANC to travel abroad to set up the ANC's international mission and mobilise international opinion in opposition to the apartheid system. Working in conjunction with Dr Yusuf Dadoo, he was instrumental in the establishment of the South African United Front, which brought together the external missions of the ANC, the PAC, the SA Indian Congress. As a result of a very successful lobbying campaign, the South African United Front was able to secure the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961.

For the work he has done when very few amongst his rank could not take the risk, the ANC has described Tambo as "the glue that held the anti-apartheid movement together. He is remembered as a patient listener with a razor-sharp intellect who employed the traditional African methods of consensus to negotiate and reach decisions.

As South Africa’s Pioneer Diplomat

It did not come as a surprise that later in his political life, O.R dedicated part of his time to broaden understanding about the plight of the majority in South Africans throughout the world. By so doing, he was effectively taking an initiative to lobby support from those who believed in democracy and human rights to shun the nationalist government for their repressive regime, and suppression of the majority.

Throughout his campaigns, he remained modest, yet a relentless lobbyist who brought the plight of black South Africans under the apartheid regime to world attention. Assisted by some African governments, Tambo was able to establish ANC mission in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco and London. From these small beginnings, under his stewardship the ANC acquired missions in 27 countries by 1990. These include all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, two missions in Asia and one in Australasia.

It is perhaps by no coincidence that Comrade O.R became acting President of the ANC until his appointment to the Presidency was approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.

During the 1970’s, Comrade O.R’s international prestige rose immensely as he traversed the world, addressing the United Nations and other international gatherings on the issue of apartheid. He became the key figure in the ANC’s Revolutionary Council (RC), which had been set up at the Morogoro Conference to oversee the reconstruction of the ANC’s internal machinery, and to improve its underground capacity.  Since then, Comrade O.R campaigned ceaselessly for international sanctions against the apartheid regime.

After the arrest of the bulk of the ANC leadership, including Mandela, following Rivonia, the ANC was severely weakened internally. When Wilton Mkwayi was arrested and imprisoned, the position of Supreme Commander of MK was passed to O.R, in exile. At the time, the ANC had set up its headquarters in Dar Es Salam, Tanzania. It is Tanzania’s head of state, Julius “Mwalimu” Nyerere who generously donated land for use by the MK, and any other activities by the ANC.

Among black South African leaders, Oliver Tambo was probably the most highly respected on the African continent, in Europe, Asia and the Americas. During his stewardship of the ANC, he raised its international prestige and status to that of an alternative to the Pretoria Government. He was received with the protocol reserved for Heads of State in many parts of the world.

Programme Director,

By all indications, Comrade O.R was one of the most steadfast, dignified and disciplined cadres of our struggle. His contributions to the ANC and the country were unparalleled. Many of us remain proud for having had an opportunity to be associated with him. He was a stalwart and a father of the nation, who combined resilience and fortitude in fighting colonial oppression and apartheid, with compassion for the poor and the downtrodden – and yet maintained composure.

It was his work and contributions that enhanced the image, agenda and vision of our movement, country and the people of South Africa. We all know that O.R Tambo can be best described as he who loved and served his country devotedly with enthusiasm and yet maintained the much needed humility. It is this embodiment that characterizes a true diplomat that O.R Tambo would have wanted to prevail amongst our diplomats – young, old and retired.  He would have wanted us to learn much about leadership and Ubuntu.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are just some of the tenants of O.R’s definition of a “fine diplomat”. I would like to urge all of us to uphold these values and internalize them in our own lives. Our behavior must influence unity rather than focus on issues that divide us – especially unity amongst nations. From him we must have learned that one can be a leader and still respect others in actions and deeds regardless of their status in life. It was in his nature that he cared and mobilized all the workers, youth, the homeless, professionals, the rural poor, and ordinary folk – all his contributions declare that he was a true Diplomat.

Programme Director,

Our gathering today is not only to pay homage to O.R Tambo, but to also position the relevance of his legacy to the work that we do. To look at how his legacy has influenced our work, and if indeed we have upheld to the values he espoused. 

As we strive to focus on harnessing the growth and potential of the continent for sustainable development of South Africa and the rest of the continent, we remain cognizant of the need to connect African countries with each other through the facilitation of intra-African trade, and opening up regions and countries to tourism. Accordingly, our full potential and identity as true diplomats can only be revealed if we rally behind such initiatives.

Programme Director,

In conclusion, please allow me to borrow from an eulogy, by former President Nelson Mandela, during the burial of Comrade O.R. He shared these inspiring words of comfort:

"Oliver lived not because he could breathe. He lived not because blood flowed through his veins. Oliver lived not because he did all the things that all of us as ordinary men and women do. Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very   being to the people."

Let the spirit of O.R Tambo continue to reign in our selfless service for humanity. Let his wisdom continue to teach us that, if we too can surrender our own being to the people, we will have touched the lives of those who are less privileged, because our destiny as humanity is inextricably linked. Let us continue to learn from his work that being of service to the nation equals being of service to humanity at large.

Let the spirit of O.R Tambo live on!

I thank you.

Enquiries: Mr Clayson Monyela, Spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, 082 884 5974.


OR Tambo Building
460 Soutpansberg Road





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