Oliver Tambo's Legal Practice (which he shared with Nelson Mandela) on Fox Street outside the Jo'burg Magistrates Court has recently been renovated and now holds an exhibition space and visitors centre.
Oliver Tambo, who would have bee celebrating his 96th birthday yesterday, was a man passionate about education and his achievements would be miraculous in the South Africa of today, let alone during the apatheid regime of 70 year's ago. What is more, many forget that Oliver Tambo was a teacher and spent 10 years teaching science at mathematics at his old school, St Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. He is today highly renowned throughout the world as a man of much fortitude, unquestionable morals and incredible perseverance.
Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo was born in Mpondoland (eQawukeni), Eastern Cape, on 27 October 1917. His father was an assistant salesperson at a local trading store who was a traditionalist but also saw the importance of Western education. Oliver excelled at school from the very beginning but due to a lack of funds he was forced to repeat Standard Six (Grade Eight) twice in spite of passing at his first attempt. In 1934 he set out for St Peter's Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg with the assistance of Miss Tidmarsh his former teacher.
In November 1936, he wrote his Junior Certificate (JC) examination, alongside black and white students in the Transvaal. For the first time in history, two African students, one being Tambo, excelled in the JC examination with a first class pass. The Transkei Bhunga (Assembly of Chiefs) awarded him a five-year scholarship of £30pa and the University of South Africa also awarded him a two-year scholarship of £20. He then sat for the matriculation examinations in December 1938, in which he also achieved a first class pass.
Oliver decided to study science. There was an imbalance, he decided, in the black professions there were too many B.A. candidates. Ideally, he had wanted to study medicine but at the time no university would accept black students. Three years later, Oliver Tambo graduated with a B.Sc. degree in physics and maths. The following year he enrolled for a diploma in higher education but before his last year at Fort Hare was through, he was expelled for organising a student protest on a point of principle. He then left the university and went home to Kantolo, planning to look for a job - any job, for he had the younger members of the homestead to support. But the news of his expulsion reached his old school, St Peter's. They immediately offered him a post as Maths teacher.
Over the next ten years, Tambo made an enduring impact on his students at St Peters. Dozens of his students remembered his distinctive, interactive and encouraging style of teaching, using methods, which were well ahead of their time. O.R. inspired many to take up teaching too. After hours, he introduced the concepts of the Youth League to his senior students. Some of them went on to join the movement and become prominent comrades. Amongst them were Andrew Mlangeni, Henry Makoti, Duma Nokwe, Joe Matthews, Vella Pillay and a number of others.
But in 1953, after Tambo had taught maths at St Peters for a decade, a career shift into the practice of law saw Mandela and Tambo become the first, and at that time the only, black African law firm in South Africa. Tambo had by then completed his law qualifications through UNISA, and had served articles to become an attorney. As partners, Mandela and Tambo fought in the courts for equality for all South Africans, a goal that was to elude them for a further 40 years.
Oliver Tambo fought fiercely against the evils of the apartheid system and its many injustices and did this through educating young people. If Mandela and Tambo were at the forefront of the formation of the ANC, their ideas transformed thousands more to take up the cause. As a result, building public opinion led to the challenging of the status quo and eventually the power of his ideas led to Oliver Tambo being forced into exile. In exile for a full 30 years, Tambo suffered from a well-recorded period of homesickness, missing the great expanses of home as he travelled the world explaining the injstices faced by black South Africans to the world.
In April 1993, after only three years back in the country and only a year before South Africa saw all its people streaming to the polls for the first time, Oliver Tambo succumbed to a stroke. Nelson Mandela writes of his passing:
[Plato] the philosopher classifies men into groups of gold, silver and lead. Oliver Tambo was pure gold; there was gold in his intellectual brilliance, gold in his warmth and humanity, gold in his tolerance and generosity, gold in his unfailing loyalty and self-sacrifice.
Oliver Tambo never gave up on his dream of an equal South Africa and spent the majority of his life in service of his country. He understood the value education had to himself and others in achieving this dream and, throughout his life, became emblematic of the impact one outstanding mind can have on the plight of an entire population.
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Class Act GPLMS Project Manager