Former ANC president Oliver Tambo Picture: Independent Media Archives
“We seek to create a united, democratic and non-racial society. We have a vision of a South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity.”

Oliver Reginald “OR” Tambo spoke these words during a symposium in Washington DC in 1987, three years before the ANC and other political movements were unbanned. He was addressing sceptical Americans who called the ANC a “terrorist” organisation.

“We want to see a political system in which all South Africans will have the right to vote and to be elected to any elective position without reference to colour, race, sex or creed,” he told the symposium attended by US lawmakers and academics.

“We are committed to the birth of a society in which all democratic freedoms would be guaranteed, including those of association, of speech and religion, the press and so on. We wish to guarantee the rule of law and ensure the protection of the rights of the individual.”

As we celebrate the centenary of the beloved icon from the village of Kantolo, near Mbizana in the Eastern Cape, and Ekurhuleni’s Wattville township, outside Benoni, we draw inspiration from his exemplary leadership and vision that has left a lasting legacy.

Former ANC president Oliver Tambo (centre) with Nelson Mandela (R) and Adelaide Tambo looking on.
Former ANC president Oliver Tambo (centre) with Nelson Mandela (R) and Adelaide Tambo looking on at the ANC congress in 1991. Picture: Independent Media Archives

It is not surprising that our government has declared 2017 the year of OR Tambo. After all, he dedicated his life to liberation and equal opportunity for all South Africans.

OR was a shrewd leader who led the ANC for three decades from exile. He was widely regarded as the man who led the party through its toughest times as a struggling liberation movement. A low-key man known for his warm personal touch with colleagues, he acted as roving ambassador, mustered international support and built the ANC into a major vehicle for black liberation.

Why is OR so special? As the Sotho anti-apartheid Struggle song went: OR hahona atshwanang leyena (OR, there is no one like him), he was a man of integrity who made sacrifices for the sake of others, a man known for his forbearance, gentleness and lack of bitterness. He was passionate, energetic, committed and visionary.

Researchers, academics and leadership experts say leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and discipline. The overriding qualities of great leaders are an unwavering integrity and a passion for working hard to earn their position of authority and trust. OR possessed all of these.

Will there be another OR? No. Why? Because leaders today are of a different kind.

The best way to categorise political leaders is based on their time orientation. Some spend more time glorifying the past, talking about what they have lost for the benefit of their supporters and not what they have done. Others tend to look into the future with a more optimistic approach, as OR always did.

He was part of a group of political leaders who never glorified the past but focused on the present and the future.

We should work hard to transform the country into a much more economically viable nation which is future-oriented and filled with opportunities. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore were transformed from being poor economies to economic giants in the global arena, thanks to their leaders, who displayed a strong political will with a futuristic view.

It is a pity that our political parties, heeding the howls of their marginalised bases, display strident polarised camps.

To honour OR, we must put country above party politics and develop solutions that reflect our nation’s diverse needs.

To embrace OR’s teachings, we need to work hard to increase economic growth, fight corruption, enhance transparency and enable efficient processes.

To honour OR’s centenary and his legacy, we need to improve our country’s social well-being by creating equal opportunities and ensuring a decrease in income inequality.

Oliver Tambo with his associate Nelson Mandela.
Oliver Tambo with his associate Nelson Mandela  Picture: Independent Media Archives

All of us should make a conscious paradigm shift from being bogged down by our political ideologies towards a more open-minded perspective - ending inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Creating a business-friendly economic and political environment is a must. This includes enacting policies and programmes that encourage entrepreneurship and political tolerance.

Nelson Mandela put it well: “Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people. He lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision. While he lived, our minds would never quite formulate the thought that this man was other than what the naked eye could see.

“We could sense it, but never crystallise the thought that with us was one of the few people who inhabited our own human environment, who could be described as the jewel in our crown. I say that Oliver Tambo has not died, because the ideals for which he sacrificed his life can never die.”

* Masina is executive mayor of the City of Ekurhuleni, where OR Tambo lived before his death in 1993.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent