Jonathan Jansen | OR’s example sadly lacking

Tambo, with Nelson Mandela next to him, receives a gift
Tambo, with Nelson Mandela next to him, receives a gift
Image: TJ Lemon

He was baptised at least three times – by Evangelicals, Methodists and Anglicans. As a high school pupil he achieved that rare distinction of a first class pass in mathematics in the years when blacks and whites still wrote a common examination.

He would not see his wife for a year but when he did, they would sit through the night talking and singing hymns for three hours on end.

When he protested at university and the authorities threatened to expel him, he asked for time to pray and consult with his God.

And when the Anglican archbishop opened the casket to incense and bless the 75-yearold’s body, there lay the great man of God in full military regalia.

The Arch was confused at first, but then he saw those distinctive marks on the man’s face that confirmed the identity of the deceased not only as AmaPondo, his tribal origins, but as the man credited with holding together the ANC in exile.

For the past several months I have been intrigued, perhaps even a little obsessed, by this remarkable leader, Oliver Reginald Kaisana Tambo.

We know a lot about him as the reluctant president of the ANC while Nelson Mandela was in prison.

We know he was single-handedly responsible for building a broad international alliance against apartheid when Western governments from Ronald Reagan in the US to Margaret Thatcher in the UK still spoke about the ANC as a terrorist organisation.

And we know that he fought tirelessly to keep together Africa’s oldest liberation movement when it threatened to splinter and fall apart.

What we do not know about is the remarkable life of faith of a man that struggle veteran Reg September would call “one of the world’s greatest revolutionary Christian gentlemen”.

The ANC, then and now, is squeamish talking about the faith commitments of its leaders.

Tambo’s dearest friend, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, would lament the fact: “It hasn’t come out nearly sufficiently in the obituaries, what a deeply religious person Oliver was and how much principle, ethical and moral principle mattered to him.”

Some say it is because the ANC thinks of itself as “a broad church” and that religious talk is often divisive.

Others say it has to do with the fact that many of the influential leaders were communists and non-Christian.

One of the veterans told me that in exile they sometimes associated those engaged in Christian talk with spies trying to infiltrate the organisation.

But we need to talk about the spiritual life of the man they called “OR” because more than anyone I know, his devout faith was the internal resource that expressed itself in great moral leadership that he demonstrated over the exacting years of exile.

So I created a word cloud that showed the words a whole range of people used more than once to describe the character of the man: humble, reserved, modest, empathetic, devout, honest, compassionate, decent, trustworthy, respectful, disciplined, patient and meticulous.

When last did you hear a politician anywhere described in these words?

Of his Christian faith, says Ronnie Kasrils, “he never spoke”.

That is not true; he often did, such as when he led the reading of the Good Samaritan in St Paul’s Cathedral at the funeral of another friend, Canon John Collins, or when he challenged church leaders somewhere in Europe with the Christian preacher’s clarion call: Who is on the Lord’s side?

More importantly he spoke through the very powerful testimony of his extraordinary life.

He compartmentalised his faith from his politics, Ben Turok says.

Also not true, for in his life he brought together seamlessly his roles as a fighter, believer and humanist in his relations with other people – as in the casket story above.

He did not allow his faith to obtrude on personal relationships, Kader Asmal said.

Also inaccurate, for Tambo did not see his faith as a potential source of conflict but as a way of being in the world, as an outward expression of an inward devotion.

Could it be that the crisis of the ANC in full view over the past two decades has to do with the loss of moral leadership so powerfully demonstrated in the life of Oliver Tambo?

As I studied his remarkable life it became clear that leading a movement, or for that matter a country, takes a lot more than idealised policy or sophisticated plans or “strategy and tactics”.

It takes an unwavering commitment to core values – such as empathetic leadership – that should inform any leaders’ devotion to the people we are privileged to serve.

Under such leadership, at all levels of government, you would then not have a Life Esidimeni or yet another child drowning in a pit latrine.

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