OR: a visionary leader


Brand South Africa CEO, Kingsley Makhubela, shares his thoughts on leadership from former African National Congress (ANC) leader, Oliver Reginald (OR) Tambo, who passed away in 1993. This year marks the centenary of Tambo’s birth.

Kingsley Makhubela
Oliver Tambo displayed an important quality when it comes to leadership: the ability to provide solutions to current challenges, says Brand South Africa CEO, Kingsley Makhubela. (Image: Melissa Javan)

Kingsley Makhubela

The most important quality when it comes to leadership is to provide solutions for current challenges and inspire people to work towards a better future for all.

Because the past is over and cannot be changed, leaders who want to project confidence and the impression that they are in control of events talk optimistically of the future, often emphasising that today’s sacrifices will pay dividends down the road, observe the US business theorists Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton.

The leadership qualities demonstrated by late ANC president Oliver Reginald (OR) Tambo provide an eloquent illustration of this principle.

Moreover, the ability to project into the future was evident in his diplomatic skills, particularly when he drafted one of the ANC’s strategic documents for negotiations with the apartheid government, the Harare Declaration. It was later adopted by the UN General Assembly as the Declaration on Apartheid and its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa.

The document articulates conditions under which the negotiations regarding the South African conflict should take place.

Following the end of the Cold War, the late 1980s were characterised by fundamental changes regarding conflict resolution. During this time, Tambo realised the importance of having a framework for negotiation on the South African conflict. The Harare Declaration was drafted in anticipation of possible negotiations, brought on by global changes after the end of the Cold War.

Once the declaration was adopted at the Summit of the Frontline Heads of State, it was escalated to the meeting of the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in July 1989.

The presentation of this declaration to the OAU’s summit of heads of state was an act of brilliance on the part of Tambo, given that some leaders doubted its merits. Tambo’s diplomatic skills were fundamental to ensuring the unanimous adoption of the declaration at that summit.

Tambo understood that the opposition of even a single country had the potential to derail the adoption of the document by world leaders at the UN General Assembly. His grasp of the value of UN consensus and political support underlined his resolve to present a united front by African states at the UN.

A step ahead

The document was finalised within a short time. I have no doubt that Tambo’s health was severely affected by the work he needed to complete before the General Assembly gathering in September 1989. I remember him missing his annual medical checkup because he had to prioritise gaining the support of all frontline member states regarding changes to the document, as mandated by the OAU summit.

As always, Zambia’s then president Kenneth Kaunda provided him with a plane to fly to all the frontline states to finalise these changes.

Tambo flew to six countries in three days and accomplished his mission. The gruelling travel demands contributed to his suffering the stroke which eventually took his life. I cannot forget that day: Wednesday, 9 August 1989. It was the day Tambo made the supreme sacrifice to ensure that there was a viable framework for the negotiation of a democratic South Africa.

A closer look at the UN Declaration highlights the fact that one needs to appreciate Tambo’s understanding of the Westphalian political order, which has at its core the notion of state sovereignty.

To this end, the declaration is divided into sections dealing with the principles of a future democratic South Africa based on constitutionality, the rule of law and an independent, nonracial judiciary.

Our constitutional democracy is rooted in Tambo’s sterling work, which provided a climate for negotiations by spelling out what the apartheid regime needed to do to create conditions conducive for negotiations.

Scholars on the subject of negotiation suggest that some form of compromise by both sides during the negotiation process is a key enabling condition for success. However, Tambo was a step ahead of them in the way that he had structured the Harare Declaration. He ensured that the onus was on the apartheid regime to level negotiations by undertaking to unconditionally release political prisoners, lift the ban on political parties, end the state of emergency and cease all political trials.

These concessions were to be made by the apartheid regime without the expectation of any concession on the ANC’s part.

Tambo was aware that once the apartheid regime made some positive steps, there would be an expectation for the other side to make concessions.

But concessions by those opposing the apartheid regime would be tantamount to capitulation by liberation forces in the face of blatant power asymmetry at the negotiation table.

The declaration was equally unequivocal when it came to guidelines regarding the process of negotiations. To this end, Tambo was strategic in ensuring that the declaration articulated the parameters of the negotiation process with regard to the role of the international community. He ensured that the international community underwrote the negotiation process to guarantee a positive outcome.

The UN Declaration made it clear that the dismantling of the apartheid regime in its entirety was the only item for negotiation. In its programme of action, the document spelt out steps that needed to be taken to dismantle apartheid, and mandated that, based on progress during negotiations, sanctions should be gradually lifted. The road map to the integration of South Africa into the global community was stipulated by the declaration.

Finally, certain aspects of the Declaration on Apartheid and its Destructive Consequences in Southern Africa found expression in our Constitution, thanks to Tambo’s leadership and vision. South Africans will be eternally grateful for this.

Follow on Makhubela on twitter @klmmakhubela.

This is an edited version of the keynote address at the launch of an exhibition at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum marking the centenary of Oliver Tambo’s birth.

Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.