Justice Albie Sachs remembers OR Tambo's crucial role in South Africa's constitutional democracy

Posted on March 01, 2017


Through his activism over the decades, Oliver Reginald Tambo, lawyer, revolutionary and politician left a lasting impression on South Africa and its Constitution. In celebration of his legacy, the Centre for Human Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP), and the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation hosted the first in a series of Oliver Tambo Centenary Lectures on Wednesday 22 February 2017.

The event brought together students, academics and members of civil society to pay homage to Tambo's life. Attendees were welcomed by the Chancellor of the University, Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. The former mayor of Ekurhuleni, Duma Nkosi, who played a crucial role in the official renaming of Johannesburg International Airport in honour of Tambo, was also present.

The lecture was presented by retired judge of the Constitutional Court and Tambo's comrade-in-exile, Albie Sachs. Sachs reflected on the values of the former ANC President, his integrity and the relevance of this to the new constitutional order.

'He was a natural diplomat,' Sachs recalled. 'He never ran away from hard and testing questions.' To illustrate this, Sachs challenged his audience to answer three questions about the Constitution and the inspiration behind it.

The first question Sachs posed was to name one good thing about apartheid. The audience was puzzled. 'The one good thing about apartheid,' he remarked jokingly, 'was that it created anti-apartheid.' In a sense, he suggested, it was only through the divisions of racial segregation, that the paths of Tambo, who was born and raised in rural Transkei, could cross with that of Sachs, who grew up on the sandy beaches of Cape Town.

The second question of the freedom fighter's explored a more controversial issue. He asked the audience whose DNA they would discover if they were to do a paternity test on the South African Constitution. Sachs responded by saying that Tambo's ideals were fundamental to the Constitution and that it was a power-sharing mechanism. He dismissed allegations that the constitutional project was an uneasy compromise, aimed at placating the black majority, while protecting the financial interests of the white minority.

Finally, he asked, 'What did we fight for?'

His answer was simple: democracy. 'Long before the Berlin wall fell, the ANC supported multiparty democracy,' Sachs continued. 'I know it seems obvious now, but back then it wasn't.' Here, he made an important comparison between the ANC and other political organisations on the continent: as liberation movements in neighbouring countries descended into despotism and cruelty, the ANC, under Tambo's guidance, managed to stay true to its egalitarian principles.

Comrade OR, as Sachs affectionately called him, shepherded the African National Congress through long years of uncertainty and homesickness in exile. During his fifty years in the organisation, he was a role player in every key area of the party. He was both a founding member and secretary of the ANC Youth League in 1944, general secretary of the ANC from 1952, leader of the ANC's Mission in Exile 1960, ANC President from 1977 to 1990 and finally national chairperson until his death in 1993.

Lately, Tambo's role has been overshadowed by louder, more populist voices in South African politics. However, Sachs used the opportunity to launch an impassioned defence of the country's founding document, remarking that 'we have constitutions because we mistrust not only the enemy, but also ourselves'.

The first lecture in the Oliver Tambo Centenary Lecture Series was made possible by the generous support of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in South Africa.


Click on the video link below to watch the Oliver Tambo Centenary Lecture by Justice Albie Sachs on YouTube



- Author Centre for Human Rights

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences