BORN: 1917
DIED: 1993
PRESIDENCY: 1967 – 1991

Born five years after the birth of the ANC, Oliver Reginald Tambo spent most of his life serving in the struggle against apartheid. ‘O R’, as he was popularly known by his peers, was born on October 27, 1917 in a rural town, Mbizana, in eastern Mpondoland, the then Cape Province (now Eastern Cape). His parents had converted to Christianity shortly before he was born.

At the age of seven, he began his formal education at the Ludeke Methodist School in the Mbizana district and completed his primary education at the Holy Cross Mission. He then transferred to Johannesburg to attend St Peters College, in Rossettenville, where he completed his high school education.

From St Peters, Tambo went to study at the University College of Fort Hare, near Alice, where he obtained his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1941. It was at Fort Hare that he first became involved in the politics of the national liberation movement. He was expelled from Fort Hare for leading a student class boycott in support of a demand to form a democratically elected Student’s Representative Council (SRC). In 1942, he returned to St Peters College as a science and mathematics teacher.

He was among the founding members of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944 and became its first National Secretary. He was elected President of the Transvaal ANCYL in 1948 and national vice-president in 1949. In the ANCYL, Tambo teamed up with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Ashby Mda, Anton Lembede, Dr William Nkomo, Dr C.M.Majombozi and others, to bring a bold, new spirit of militancy into the post-war ANC. In 1946, Tambo was elected onto the Transvaal Executive of the ANC. In 1948 he, together with Walter Sisulu were elected onto the National Executive Committee. This was of great significance to the ANCYL’s efforts to change the ANC.

Instrumental in achieving this transformation was the Programme of Action, piloted by the ANCYL from branch level to the 1949 national conference at Bloemfontein. O.R. Tambo served on the Committee that drew up the Programme of Action, which was adopted as national policy in 1949.


Tambo left teaching soon after the adoption of the Programme of Action and set up a legal partnership with Nelson Mandela. The firm soon became known as a champion of the poor, victims of apartheid laws with little or no money to pay their legal costs.

Oliver Tambo also served on the National Action Council which headed the mobilisation for the COP. It was because of this role that Tambo found himself among the 156 accused in the marathon Treason Trial in 1956.

In 1958, Oliver Tambo left the post of Secretary General to become the Deputy President of the ANC. In 1959, he, like many of his colleagues were served with five year banning orders. After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, Tambo was designated by the ANC to travel abroad to set up the ANC’s international mission and mobilise international opinion in opposition to the apartheid system.

Working in conjunction with Dr Yusuf Dadoo, he was instrumental in the establishment of the South African United Front, which brought together the external missions of the ANC, the PAC, the SA Indian Congress and the South West African National Union (SWANU).

In 1967, after the death of ANC President General Chief Albert J. Luthuli, Tambo became Acting president until his appointment to the Presidency was approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.

In 1985 Tambo was re-elected ANC President at the Kabwe Conference. In that capacity he served also as the Head of the Politico-Military Council (PMC) of the ANC, and as Commander in Chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

In 1989 Oliver Tambo suffered a stroke, and underwent extensive medical treatment.

He returned to South Africa in 1991, after over three decades in exile. At the ANC’s first legal national conference inside South Africa, held in Durban in July 1991, Tambo was elected National Chairperson of the ANC. He was also chairperson of the ANC’s Emancipation Commission. Oliver Reginald Tambo died from a stroke at 3.10am on 24 April, 1993.