A tribute to Oliver Tambo
26 October 2017
The South African Communist Party (SACP) lowers its red banner in honour of, and tribute to former and late President of the African National Congress (ANC), Comrade Oliver Reginald Tambo on his birthday centenary. Tambo would have turned 100 on Thursday, 27 October 2017. He was born on 27 October 1917 and died on 24 April 1993. The SACP is deeply indebted to Cde Tambo in general and as the longest serving President of our historical ally, the ANC. Tambo played one of the leading roles in the building and strengthening of the Tripartite Alliance under the most difficult period of our struggle.
As the SACP said at the funeral of Cde Ahmed Kathrada, this was a generation that was well ahead of its times! It was a generation that was never tempted to confront the racist apartheid regime with a narrow Africanist or racial chauvinistic alternative. It would have seemed easy to racially mobilise the Black majority against their white counterparts. However, Tambo’s generation of leadership had a superior historical mission, that of building a non-racial society. Think about it! These were young men, most of them from our country’s deep hinterland in the 1940s, yet by the late 1950s they were proponents of non-racialism. Although the SACP played an important role in contributing towards building a liberation movement, whose main platform was to achieve a non-racial South Africa, we however salute Oliver Tambo for being part of our visionaries in this struggle.
However, Oliver Tambo and his generation also deeply understood that the struggle for national liberation was not only about throwing away the yoke of racially based oppression, but that the economy had to be radically transformed to serve the interests of the overwhelming majority of our people. It was these shared strategic and programmatic perspectives that constituted the foundation of building our Tripartite Alliance.
Oliver Tambo, working together with the likes of Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Ray Alexander, Moses Mabhida and Joe Slovo, progressively built a strong revolutionary alliance that was at the head of the liberation movement and all other progressive forces. These were leaders who placed the liberation of the people at the centre of their strategic and tactical considerations, and not their own, personal or family interests.
Perhaps one other important thing that needs to be said about Oliver Tambo and his generation of leaders was that they firmly understood the context within which the struggle for the liberation of South Africa unfolded. It was this understanding, informed by the struggles of our people on the ground that evolved into the four pillars of our struggle: mass struggles, the underground organisation, the armed struggle and the international isolation of the apartheid regime. All these tributaries of our struggle were central in the defeat of the apartheid regime in 1994. It is indeed very unfortunate that some of the leaders of our movement want to elevate some of the pillars as more important than others. Oliver Tambo must be turning in his grave. Let us honour Tambo by uniting our people in all key terrains of struggle in order to drive a second, more radical phase of our national democratic revolution: in the workplace, in our communities, in the economy, in our stokvels and co-operatives, ideologically, etc.
We are however commemorating the centenary of Oliver Tambo’s birth at a time when our movement, especially the ANC, is facing very serious difficulties. Our revolution and movement has entered unchartered waters, more or less in a whirlpool, such that it is on the verge of imploding. We should use this moment to continue reflecting very hard on the challenges facing our movement and what is to be done.
Like Oliver Tambo and his generation of leaders, we have to ask why our country and movement are where we find ourselves today. One way of answering this question is to refer to Oliver Tambo’s own apt observation, that is:
“Comrades, you might think it is very difficult to wage a liberation struggle. Wait until you are in power. I might be dead by then. At that stage you will realise that it is actually more difficult to keep the power than to wage a liberation war. People will be expecting a lot of services from you. You will have to satisfy the various demands of the masses of our people. In the process, be prepared to learn from other people’s revolutions. Learn from the enemy also. The enemy is not necessarily doing everything wrongly. You may take his right tactics and use them to your advantage. At the same time, avoid repeating the enemy’s mistakes.” –OR Tambo, Angola, 1977.
In other words we need to understand properly the difference between the current situation and the period during which Tambo was at the helm of our movement. One way of understanding our current context is that democratic revolutions in under-developed countries are always faced with the vexed reality that election into any political office often becomes the only means of livelihood for many leaders, with no or very little prospects of personal economic survival when they lose that political power. That is why Marx and Engels, amongst other things, emphasise in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, the necessity for a victorious working class to rapidly increase the productive forces:
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state… and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible”.
Although this statement by Marx and Engels may primarily be about a transition to socialism, but it has many lessons for national democratic revolutions. A failure to rapidly expand productive forces – in other words to develop and diversify productive capacity and national production after a democratic breakthrough narrows opportunities for creating employment and other means of livelihood, thus leaving state power as the only source for survival and accumulation. This is part of the material foundation of state capture and its twins, factionalism and corruption.
Access to political office is financed, among others through corrupt means often in partnership with a parasitic bourgeoisie, and/or sections of imperial capital. In these conditions there is often a dialectical and mutually reinforcing relationship between factionalism and parasitism. Factions must capture the state to hand over tenders to the parasites and, in turn, the parasites fund political factions to remain in control of both the organisation and the state. There is no doubt that in our movement and country today these phenomena strongly exist.
Often access to state power as a means of livelihood quickly degenerates into greed. The greedy exploit access to state power not only to cater for their current wants but also to cater for their future when they are out of office. It is often at this stage that family members, siblings, relatives and their wider circle of friends get drawn into patronage networks, including but not limited to the dispensing of tenders. This brings us to an observation made by Franz Fanon in his ‘The wretched of the earth’ in dealing with the pitfalls of narrow national consciousness:
“National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallisation of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilisation of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity.”
This tendency found expression high up among some heads of state in governance after breakthroughs against colonial rule. If parasitic networks begin to encounter resistance, from both inside or outside the state and the movement, they start creating parallel structures and processes both in the state and in the movement. Key decisions by the parasitic networks are made outside of the organisation and the state by smaller factions of individuals and ‘kitchen’ cabinets. Sometimes important state decisions are sought from beneficiaries located outside of the official structures of the state.
Resistance to captured states and individuals in political movements is often met with an increasing element of a securocrat state. The emergence of securocrat states in Africa is persuasively analysed by Ibbo Mandaza, who found that the tendency reflects moments of post-colonial primitive accumulation where the new political elite, without its own capital, often brazenly use state institutions to ruthlessly acquire wealth and crush whoever stands in their way, both inside and outside of their own movements.
South Africa has visibly reached the early stages of a securocrat state. The existence of rogue intelligence activities, including smear campaigns and concocted criminal charges, primarily directed at leaders inside the movement is a sure sign of the emergence of a securocrat state that relies on factionalist use of institutions of the criminal justice system. Another example of an emerging securocrat state was the attempt to tarnish the image of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The violence we are seeing in the province of KwaZulu-Natal can also be taken to be part of this (emergent) securocrat state.
Although the two contexts are different, but what can we learn from Oliver Tambo and his generation of leadership in order to deal with the current problems afflicting our movement? Perhaps the most important lesson is that of characterising the challenges we are facing as they are, as Tambo’s generation of leadership did in the ANC’s consultative conference held in Morogoro, Tanzania in 1969. But they went further in Morogoro by coming out with a clear programme to confront the problems facing the revolution at the time. They chose the path of collective leadership and involvement, reflection and engagement with all components of the movement, and confronted factions and came out with an inclusive way forward.
As the SACP we had hoped that the ANC in particular will convene such a consultative gathering, but unfortunately it did not. We hope that at least the ANC will use its forthcoming December conference to learn from Oliver Tambo and emerge with a leadership and programme to rebuild and reunite the movement, if this conference does indeed take place.
What is the task of the Communists in this period, also as part of honouring Oliver Tambo and his generation of leaders?
Communists must work both inside and outside of the ANC to try and assist the organisation to rescue itself from the clutches of factionalism, corruption and corporate capture. But over and above this, the SACP must play its vanguard role in building, first, a popular front of progressive forces that are still interested in taking forward the national democratic revolution. Secondly, Communists must work hard to build a broader patriotic front to defend the gains we have made over the last 23 years in order to defeat parasitic networks. But we will say more about these organisational challenges in the next weeks and months.
Cde Blade Nzimande is SACP General Secretary