Books Like “Oliver Tambo Speaks” Fail to Capture a Record of the Truth

Dear friends and fellow South Africans,

Last Monday, at the invitation of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, I attended the OR Tambo Memorial Lecture, delivered by former President Kgalema Motlanthe. I was warmly welcomed by the Tambo family.

As I listened to Mr Motlanthe urging today’s leaders of the ANC to emulate the integrity of their past President General, Mr Oliver Reginald Tambo, many memories rose to the surface, for I knew Mr Tambo well and we shared a long history.

In the fifties, while studying at the University of Fort Hare – Tambo’s alma mater – I joined the ANC Youth League which he and others had founded. I became deeply involved in liberation politics, finally being rusticated from Fort Hare for my political activities. That was, perhaps, a blessing in disguise, for I continued my studies at the University of Natal and stayed on in Durban afterwards, where I spent a great deal of time at Lakani Chambers in Grey Street, conversing with Inkosi Albert Luthuli.

Inkosi Luthuli had often come to KwaSokesimbone to attend imbizos when my uncle, Prince Mshiyeni ka Dinuzulu, was Regent. But our conversations in Durban entrenched our friendship and Inkosi Luthuli became my greatest mentor.

I recall an article written by then President Nelson Mandela, in 1996, in which he wrote that when Luthuli was President of the ANC, “few knew of Oliver Tambo and his outstanding qualities. But, when the baton changed hands, Tambo ably rose to the challenge…”

It was Tambo and Luthuli together who sent a message to me through my sister before the erstwhile KwaZulu Government was established. They urged me not to refuse the leadership of KwaZulu if the people asked me to lead, for in this way we could undermine the apartheid system from within. The homelands system was imposed upon us by law; the option of accepting or rejecting it did not exist.

Thus my role in the liberation struggle, as Chief Minister of KwaZulu, was moulded and approved by the leadership of the ANC. Yet it was only in 1998, five years after Mr Tambo’s death, that this fact was acknowledged by the ANC. At the unveiling of a tombstone in honour of Mr Tambo, Mr Cleopas Nsibande revealed a truth that the ANC had deliberately hidden for many years.

Some time later, at the funeral of Mr Cleopas Nsibande, then Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe committed the leadership of the ANC to broaching the long outstanding issue of reconciliation between the IFP and the ANC.

Last week, as Mr Motlanthe delivered the OR Tambo Memorial Lecture, I was reminded again of how this need for reconciliation first arose. It developed out of an ideological rift that the ANC could not tolerate. Indeed, when the rift first opened, they sought to deny its existence.

This is touched on in a book, made available at the Lecture, titled “Oliver Tambo Speaks”. The book compiles somehow random writings and transcripts, with sparse explanation of the context. The book itself may be valuable as a record of history. But that does not equate to a record of truth.

For instance, one could quote Tambo’s statement on 5 November 1979, in which he said, “It has come to our notice that the issue of the Johannesburg Sunday Times of November 4, 1979, carries an article that there has recently been a secret meeting in London between representatives of the African National Congress and Inkatha. There has been no secret meeting.”

This is a record of history, for Tambo did indeed issue this statement. But it is not a record of truth, for the meeting he refers to did in fact take place.

In the absence of context, random quotes can be severely misleading.

That is the case with the chapter titled “Buthelezi and Inkatha”, which does not in fact elucidate the reader on the relationship between Tambo and I, nor that between the ANC and Inkatha. Instead, the chapter is simply an extract from the Political Report of the ANC’s NEC to the second National Consultative Conference, in June 1985.

Let me provide the missing context.

It was at this Conference that Tambo, as President of the ANC’s mission-in-exile, called on his countrymen to “engulf the apartheid system in the fire and thunder of a people’s war”. The first Consultative Conference, sixteen years earlier, had taken place in Morogoro, Tanzania, where Tambo had been instrumental in setting up a guerrilla training camp. This became the ANC’s military headquarters.

Increasingly since then, the ANC had pursued the strategy of people’s war and un-governability, which relied on support from within South Africa by the disenfranchised majority.

However, by the late seventies, more than a million politically active black South Africans were card-carrying members of Inkatha, and in our conferences and meetings the message was clearly expressed that people living the day to day reality of apartheid were reluctant to now see bloodshed and chaos imported into our country. Violence would only compound the anguish we already endured.

Thus Inkatha rejected an armed struggle and people’s war, and I sounded a clarion call for non-violence, echoing the values of the 1912 founding fathers of our liberation movement. By 1979, it was clear to the ANC that they would need to bring Inkatha on board with the strategy of violence, or find some way to discredit, silence or nullify our stance.

In October 1979 Tambo invited me to lead a delegation of Inkatha to London, where we met for two and a half days with a delegation of the ANC. Tambo and his delegation sought to convince us to embrace violence. But our delegation, representing the will of ordinary South Africans in South Africa, could not accept. Instead, we advocated a multi-strategy approach. It was finally agreed that we would meet again in December to take this discussion further.

Yet, we did not meet again. Instead, just days later, Tambo publically denied that the meeting had taken place. He spoke instead of “the united forces of the South African liberation movement”, led by the ANC’s “people’s army, Umkhonto we Sizwe”. According to the ANC, there was no dissent or disagreement. “Armed struggle and people`s war,” said Tambo, “remain key elements in our strategy.”

Inkatha, on the other hand, returned from London and reported to our people that we had honoured their mandate and rejected violence. To all observers it became patently clear that an ideological rift had in fact opened in the liberation movement.

Within months, the ANC launched a vilification campaign against me and Inkatha to project the idea that we only disagreed with their approach because we were collaborators. Indeed, in June 1980, the ANC’s Secretary General, Mr Alfred Nzo, labelled us “politically bankrupt careerists and renegades” who would be “swept away onto the rubbish heap of history”.

The ANC realised that if Inkatha’s opposition to violence were allowed any credibility, people would question the ANC’s moral authority and question the strategy of armed struggle. The people’s war was escalating and they could not allow space for doubt or questions.

Thus, by the time they held their second Consultative Conference, in 1985, the ANC had given much thought to how they could intensify the people’s war. Their Commission on strategy and tactics declared Buthelezi the obstacle. They needed to “win over his supporters and deprive him of a social base” and they would do that by portraying me as “counter-revolutionary”.

Tambo was still at pains to portray the liberation movement as united. Following the Lusaka conference, on 25 June 1985, Tambo was asked in an interview about this emphasis on unity. He euphemistically replied, “Now and again there are slight differences…”

In the same interview, Tambo was asked about the distinction between “soft” targets and “hard” targets, for the Conference had resolved to remove this distinction. Violence would now engulf civilians, the innocent and the oppressed. For the ANC, people’s war was paramount. In Tambo’s words, the system made “massacres and conflicts necessary”.

Taken in context, it is obvious that the political report from the 1985 Conference reflects the propaganda of the time. It is not a record of the truth, but a record of the ANC’s strategy to neutralise Inkatha’s opposition to its people’s war. The chapter in “Oliver Tambo Speaks” would be more appropriately titled “Propaganda to Neutralise Opposition”.

Like all good propaganda, the report contained elements of truth. It admitted, for instance, that the leadership of the ANC’s mission-in-exile had “maintained regular contact” with me, and that I had taken up my position in the KwaZulu Government “after consultations with (the ANC’s) leadership”.

For ten years I had worked closely with the leaders of the ANC, including Inkosi Luthuli and Nelson Mandela. When the ANC and other political organizations were banned in 1960, I continued working with Tambo, who became President of the ANC’s mission-in-exile. In 1963, when I stopped over in London on my way to Toronto, Canada for the Anglican Congress, Mrs Adelaide Tambo ‘phoned her husband in Lusaka and he flew to London especially to meet with me. As a result, my passport was confiscated for 9 years.

When it was returned to me, I immediately met Tambo again, in London, Nairobi, Mangoche in Malawi, Lagos and Stockholm; despite the fact that doing so endangered my life in South Africa.

Contrary to the propaganda in the report, however, I did not “resurrect” Inkatha “as a personal power base”, somehow perverting an instruction from the ANC’s NEC. That lie riles me even now. In truth, it was President Kenneth Kaunda who advised me to launch a membership-based organisation, so that we could operate as a cohesive force. I was visiting Zambia to thank President Kaunda for giving sanctuary to our exiles when he gave me this good advice.

When I returned to South Africa I consulted one of my mentors, Bishop Alphaeus Zulu, about launching this kind of organisation as a centre of political mobilisation for the disenfranchised masses. With the ANC in exile, there was a political hiatus that needed to be addressed. I then consulted Mr Tambo and he supported my decision. Thus, with their support and encouragement, on the 21st of March 1975, I founded Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, the National Cultural Liberation Movement.

Inkatha took the colours of the ANC for the same reason that I publically quoted Mandela, when doing so was illegal, and held more rallies under the banner “Free Mandela” than anyone else in South Africa. Inkatha was born as the internal arm of the ANC. It was the ANC that turned against Inkatha when we would not agree to embrace violence; it was not Inkatha that turned against the ANC.

In the 1985 report, the ANC’s NEC could not admit that Tambo had invited us to London in October 1979, pretending instead that I had asked to lead a delegation to see them. The report complains that I didn’t keep the meeting a secret, but spoke openly about “the purpose, the contents and the results of the meeting”.

In contrast, Tambo flatly denied it had happened.

The report also insisted that my efforts were “doomed to fail”. Reading this as petulant bravado, one could almost be amused, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, for my efforts not only secured the citizenship of millions of black South Africans, but also convinced President de Klerk to release Mandela and brought the ANC to the negotiating table.

But there is something ominous in the report’s certainty of my imminent failure, which is confirmed in Mandela’s confession almost two decades later, that the ANC “used every ammunition to destroy” me.

Against this background, it may seem strange that in 2011 when the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association organised a celebration of the life of OR Tambo, they invited me to attend. But they did so because, despite the years of propaganda, there is recognition even from old opponents of the close relationship I had with the leaders of our liberation struggle, and with Tambo and Mandela in particular.

We shared a goal, if not a strategy, and our various contributions combined to achieve freedom.

It is a great pity that books like “Oliver Tambo Speaks” fail to capture a record of the truth. Indeed, in the absence of context and background, parts of this book will be treacherously misleading.

Yours in the service of our nation,

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP