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Road to Mangaung: Whose Tambo was he anyway?

In the latest episode of the ANC’s war with itself, there is now a contest over the legacy of former ANC president Oliver Tambo and who knew and understood him best.

Report by Daily Maverick

It seems his legacy is being contorted to suit just about every faction. “What would Tambo do?” is the new Mangaung campaign slogan.

For ANC people (those who grew up in the ANC, not those who use membership as a hot-ticket to the high-life), Oliver Tambo was the epitome of everything that was good and valiant about the organisation during the liberation struggle.

He was a master strategist, an organic thinker and an inspirational force who kept the ANC together through the height of apartheid repression during his presidency in exile.

As the ruling party now battles to distinguish the real ANC from the factions and interest groups pulling it apart, it is a shadow of the organisation it was under Tambo. Of the ANC’s 12 presidents to date, Tambo was the ANC at its best. Nelson Mandela was the symbol of resistance; Tambo was the guardian.

As the battle of Mangaung reaches a crescendo, of course, there would be contestation over who or what is closest to the memory of the ANC’s greatest leader. And none of the ANC’s current leaders seem to feel any level of hesitation or shame in invoking the legend’s name to score points against others.

Police minister and ANC national executive committee (NEC) member Nathi Mthethwa has even used Tambo to fight the great nationalisation battle, one of the most divisive issues in the ruling party as it approaches its 53rd national conference.

Speaking at a Tambo memorial lecture in Welkom in the northern Free State this weekend, Mthethwa said the ANC’s ninth president would have rejected wholesale nationalisation.

How Mthethwa acquired the powers to communicate with the dead such that he can predict something in such vivid detail is anyone’s guess.

President Jacob Zuma has also used the occasion of the ANC commemoration of Tambo’s life as part of its centenary celebrations to beat off his opponents. Zuma condemned those who “compare themselves to Tambo when in fact they are rude”, in a snide reference to the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).

“Many talks have been made about this leader. There are not many leaders who we can speak of in the manner that we speak of Tambo … People want to liken themselves to this leader when in fact they are rude. He was never rude. These were the leaders who were respectful,” Zuma said.

The president’s comments would have been a lot more sincere if he himself was not fighting off attempts by the Youth League to unseat him. It also came in the wake of a messy clash between his potential challenger Kgalema Motlanthe’s diaries. (The Youth League had to cancel an event in the Eastern Cape last Saturday where Motlanthe was billed to speak after arrangements were made for Zuma to speak at an event in the same area on Sunday.)

The ANCYL read a conspiracy into the double booking of events in the highly contested area of the Eastern Cape.

Zuma’s own lecture on Tambo last week examined what he thought the former ANC president would want of his organisation at this point in its history.

In his message to the ANC NEC on January 8 1985, Tambo said in order to move the struggle for liberation forward, particular attention should be paid to the task of building a strong presence of “well-organised revolutionary cadres”.

Ironically, these are the very people from whom the ANC is growing apart.

At the end of that message, Tambo said: “The strength of any organisation lies in the calibre of its individual members and units. In order to advance in keeping with the momentum of our struggle we must improve the quality and expand the quantity of our membership. We need cadres of unquestionable loyalty, dedication and understanding of our struggle.”

The ANC of today is not what its forefathers hoped it would turn out to be. Every year a similar process of interpretation and calculated guessing is embarked on at the anniversary of the assassination of former SACP general secretary Chris Hani.

It would seem none of those who use the memory of their leaders to endorse their political bankruptcy or defend their positions feel any shame in doing so. They all dwell under the delusion they knew their leaders best and can therefore deduce that had they lived on, they would adopt the very same views they do. Or, at worst, pretend to.

As long as the dead cannot speak for themselves, their memory becomes a mere campaign tool. Tambo may be a legend-saint these days, but no legend or saint is safe in ANC’s power battles of today.

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