Oliver Tambo: Have you heard from Johannesburg? features years worth of archival material showing Tambo agitating against the apartheid government.
Oliver Tambo: Have you heard from Johannesburg? features years worth of archival material showing Tambo agitating against the apartheid government.
When chatting to retired Constitutional Court judge and Struggle stalwart Albie Sachs, two things happen: you’re either going to sweat bullets, or you’re going to feel like you’re having a chat with your wise uncle. The latter happened to me.

I meet Uncle Albie at a hotel in Rosebank. He is polite and a gentle spirit.

Our meeting is about the film Oliver Tambo: Have you heard from Johannesburg, an exploration of the giant of a man that Tambo was, and his significant contribution to the liberation of South Africa and her people.

Sachs is the executive producer of the film, directed by Connie Field. It features years worth of archival material of Tambo agitating against the apartheid government in the international community, as well as interviews with those who spent time in exile with the ANC. Seeing Chris Hani speaking in the film is also a treat.

The film is shot documentary-style. It has the various speakers in something of a conversation with one another. They comment on specific things, including the 1969 Morogoro Conference, which was a defining moment in the struggle of the ANC.

I make the admission early on that I, possibly like many other South Africans, did not fully recognise the magnitude of the role played by Tambo in the anti-apartheid struggle, and I proceed to quiz Sachs on whether this is one of the film’s many functions. His answer confirms my suspicions.

“There are a lot of ‘ates. To celebrate, to elevate and to investigate. It’s all of these things. The centenary of his birth is the occasion. Those of us who worked with OR - that’s what we called him - it was very extraordinary. We savour it. It’s meaningful.

“I became a father 11 years ago. My son is called Oliver. My wife liked the name, but she knew I loved Oliver Tambo,” he said.

Sachs explained that part of his respect for Tambo was due to his manner, his collegiality and his dream of a democratic South Africa that respects the rights of every individual.

“There was an American film producer, Connie (Fields). She’d already made seven films under the heading ‘Have you heard from Johannesburg’. She made them over many years during the freedom struggle, mainly about the international response to the anti-apartheid struggle. And it covered many different countries. She saw the centenary of OR Tambo’s birth, October 27, and thought she’d like to make the film but couldn’t get the funding for it.’

“She spoke to the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation - I’m one of the trustees there - and I decided that I’d ask the Ford Foundation. I’ve done a lot of work with them. The Tambo Foundation also provided archival material used in the film on top of what Connie had.

“The stuff she had was amazing. She had material from Chris Hani, you see his voice and style. She then asked me to be the executive producer - she makes the film and I’m helping with finding material. We arranged a special interview with former president Thabo Mbeki to explain the Harare Declaration.

“I’m also working with her to provide guidance about the meaning and importance of the film,” Sachs said.

He acknowledged that while Tambo’s legacy may have faded in the consciousness of younger generations who are taught almost exclusively about Mandela, for the generation that was in exile, the memory remains vivid.

“We remember him very, very lively. We don’t have a competition between the two - both were important in their own ways. They were friends and equals They had a beautiful relationship. When Mandela went to Stockholm, and he hadn’t seen Tambo, who had a stroke, in 30 years, they just laughed, and laughed and laughed.

“Dali and Thembi Tambo describe that moment of giggling as though they were children Those are some of the powerful moments in the film,” he explained.

“And maybe we can say that more was put on Mandela than he wanted he kept saying I’m part of a collective, but it was easy for the world to attribute everything to Mandela,” Sachs explained.

The other elephant in the room was the timing of the release of the film. BET will broadcast the documentary on December 17, at 9.30pm, with a re-broadcast on December 22 at 1.25pm. This, ironically, coincides with the National Elective Conference of the ANC.

Given all the factional battles we’ve seen in the past couple of months, I ask Uncle Albie if this was a deliberate move.

“We are clever, but not that clever. This is purely coincidental.

“The initial release was set for his centenary, but there were factors along the way that hindered this. All we can say is that people must watch the film, learn if they can, and make up their own minds,” he said, with conviction.

* Oliver Tambo: Have you heard from Johannesburg will also be available on Afridocs at www.afridocs.net for a limited run: December 18 to 28.