Le Adelaide Tambo

Adelaide Frances Tambo will be remembered as one of South Africa’s key heroines of the liberation struggle.
The nursing sister from Vereeniging, who married African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo in 1956, died on January 31 2007 aged 77 and will be best remembered as a beacon of hope to many exiled activists during the liberation struggle.
Born in a township outside Vereeniging on July 18 1929, Adelaide returned to South Africa in 1990, almost 30 years in exile since the ANC banned.
‘We’ve come back to a country where there’s been no improvement in our people’s lives. The future of the country is in our hands. Let’s take up the challenge,’ she said soon after her return home.
Adelaide, a veteran freedom fighter in her own right, was brutally introduced to politics at the age of 10 after a police raid in Vereeniging. Her ailing 82-year-old grandfather was arrested and flogged at the town square where he collapsed.
‘I sat with him until he regained consciousness,’ she recounted.
‘His brutal and humiliating treatment at the police’s hands was the triggering and deciding factor. I swore I would fight them till the end.’
At the age of 15 she approached a local ANC organiser to enrol as a member.
‘The organiser said I was too young to become an ANC member but since I was so keen to be politically active he agreed to let me act as a courier for the branch.’
By the age of 18, Tambo had joined the ANC Youth League and was immediately elected chair of her local branch.
She met her future husband at the launch of a new youth league branch and their friendship developed over the next few years.
Oliver proposed to her in 1954, but she only agreed to settle down two years later. Three weeks before their wedding Oliver was arrested and charged with 155 other ANC members, including Nelson Mandela, for high treason.
The wedding went ahead four days after the trialists were released on bail. The trial lasted for more than three years, ending in the acquittal of all the accused.
Adelaide was one of the 20 000 women who marched on Pretoria’s Union Buildings in protest against the pass laws in 1956.
Oliver left South Africa after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and she followed a few months later. The couple were eventually re-united in London.
‘But I soon had to realise that he was now fully involved and that my role was going to be to take responsibility for the family.’
She worked as a nurse to support the family as Oliver travelled. The couple spent only the first three years of their marriage together and again in the twilight of Oliver’s years.
  ‘We got married and we both realised it would be an unusual relationship. Sometimes he would pass through London only twice a year.’
Adelaide had to earn a living, so she often worked in old people’s homes at night, locking up her children when on duty.
The Tambo’s London home became a base for many exiles and students who sought refuge while in Britain.
She founded the Afro-Asian Women Solidarity in Egypt, was a member of the All-African Women’s Congress and a member of the International Anti-Apartheid Movement.
She was recipient of the Noel Foundation Life Award for initiating the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.
Adelaide led the anti-apartheid movement in London and was in the forefront of demonstrations calling for Mandela’s freedom and that of other political detainees.
She also managed to collect all of Oliver’s speeches which she later published in 1991.
Adelaide was the first recipient of the Oliver Tambo/Johnny Makatini freedom award in February 1995. The award recognises the faith, courage and sacrifice of an individual during the freedom struggle.
As a campaigner for human rights, Adelaide was also awarded the Order of Simon of Cyrene in July 1997 for her active an outstanding and untiring commitment to the Anglican church and disadvantaged communities. The order is the highest honour that can be bestowed on a lay person by the Church of the Province of Southern Africa.
On her return to South Africa in 1990, Adelaide made a home for herself and Oliver, who died in April 1993. She was also active in re-building the ANC Women’s League.
She was elected to Parliament for the ANC after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, but decided not to serve a second five-year term.
Although she and Winnie Mandela were one-time close friends, Adelaide led the resignation of 11 members of the ANCWL’s national executive in protest against Winnie’s leadership and problems with donor funds.
In 1996 Adelaide was injured in a car accident after a truck collided with her car in Sharpeville. She suffered a fractured leg and underwent a two-hour operation.
After her retirement from active politics, Adelaide was engaged in community work with elderly people in Benoni, her marital hometown. She also worked with – as she preferred to call them – differently-abled children in Soweto.
Asked how she would like to be remembered Tambo said: ‘ As a servant of my people.’
She is survived by three children, Tembi, Dali and Tselane and several grandchildren.
(Source: SAPA 2007)

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