Programme Director

Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa, Sandra McCardell

Dr Jean Lebel, President of Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC)

Dr Molapo Qhobela, CEO of the National Research Foundation

Ms Linda Vilakazi, CEO of the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation

Trustees of the OR Tambo Foundation;

Senior officials of the IDRC and the NRF

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

 

I am humbled to stand here today and address you at this event celebrating one of South Africa's greatest sons and one of the greatest presidents of the African National Congress, who belonged to that outstanding generation of leaders that brought us our democratic breakthrough.

 

Oliver Tambo's centenary year was celebrated last year.  During the year many spoke about his life and his work, and more importantly about his commitment to the struggle for freedom, which was motivated by his love for people. In addition, much has been written about him by a great many capable men and women. Which begs the question, what is it that one can say about Oliver Tambo today that has not been said before? In preparing these remarks I thought it was important to focus on one of the aspects of his life that our society can draw guidance from, especially in the times in which we live.

 

In lecture titled "Can one lead a good life in a bad life?" the famous philosopher Judith Butler took up the question posed by Theodore Adorno, to whom the lecture was dedicated, asking how one leads a good life in a bad life.  She referred to how Adorno "underscored the difficulty of finding a way to pursue a good life for oneself, as oneself, in the context of a broader world that is structured by inequality, exploitation and forms of effacement".

 

Butler went on to identify two problems associated with this question.  "The first is how to live one's own life well, such that we might say that we are living a good life within a world in which the good life is structurally or systematically foreclosed for so many. The second problem is, what form does this question take for us now?"

 

Living a good life can be interpreted in two ways. In one interpretation, a good life can be identified with economic well-being, prosperity and security. However, economic well-being, prosperity and security can be achieved by those who are corrupt and those who exploit others. This means that if we perceive the good life in this way even those who are not living a good life can be said to be living a good life.

 

The other way is to identify the good life as the pursuit of a moral life characterised by resistance to the bad life, by joining a movement that seeks to change the conditions that render other people sub-human.  When such a resistance movement calls for a new way of life, a form of liveable life, then it must, at that moment, enact the very principles it seeks to realise.

 

It is this that animated Oliver Tambo. Oliver Tambo realised that being good was not limited to the province of his personal relationship with God, although he was a devoted Christian; he insisted on showing that being good or living a good life was about doing good in the world we live in and being good to others. 

 

When he chose the path of resistance by joining the African National Congress, he joined a movement that was saying no to the life of oppression of blacks under apartheid, at the same time saying yes to the life that was envisioned in the Freedom Charter. As a President of the ANC, OR Tambo championed the notion of democracy and non-racialism, enacting the very principles that the ANC sought to realise for South Africa.

 

His dedication and resolve in the pursuit for freedom made Oliver Tambo predictable to his comrades and those who knew him. Not predictable in a sense that he was boring, predictable in the sense that his commitment to the struggle was consistent, and that he would advance it in on whatever platform that he found himself. Thus, when his close friend and comrade President Nelson Mandela was asked to write a foreword for a collection of Oliver Tambo speeches in a book called Oliver Tambo Speaks, none of which he had read, he thought that his "task [was] made relatively easy by the fact that the theme and quality of Oliver's speeches [were] fairly predictable."

 

Mandela correctly predicted that "His speeches and writings will in all probability include a detailed review of the current political situation in South Africa, the kind of society for which the people are fighting, unity of the people ... the mapping out of the short and long-term goals of the ANC, the strengths and weaknesses of ANC, negotiations with the government, relations with our neighbour and the rest of the world."

 

Oliver Tambo chose to live a good life in a bad life. He chose to live a life of resistance in a bad life of colonisation and apartheid.

 

After obtaining his matric with distinction in 1938, went to the University of Fort Hare and registered for a BSc degree, majoring in Physics and Mathematics, which were very new subjects for anyone to study at this time. After completing his degree, he spent four years of his life furthering his understanding of maths and science. As a teacher at St Peter's high school, Oliver Tambo made a huge contribution in stimulating young minds in the search for truth, scientific truth.

 

The pursuit of truth is one of the elements that science and liberation politics share. The development of science is based on the pursuit of truth about objective reality. It is this very pursuit that has helped humanity to master the environment so that we are now able to husband it for our own purposes. It is through the truth discovered through science that technology has come into being.

 

The truth about the objective reality is also important in liberation politics, in that for any activist to effect meaningful change he/she needs to have a correct understanding of objective reality. One needs to know what has to be changed, why it should be changed and what new form or shape should it be changed into. Failure to understand the objective reality truthfully will make it difficult for any activist to change the undesirable conditions that make up the bad life.

 

Working alone in a lab a scientist can run out of the patience demanded by the pursuit of scientific truths hidden in the riddles of nature, and be tempted to manufacture evidence to support a hypothesis.  The consequences of such unethical conduct for humanity can be disastrous.  Such was the case with eugenics.

 

Similarly, a revolutionary, who when tempted by the charms of power begins to lie and claim easy victories because he refuses to acknowledge the difficulties of pursuing the struggle for change can cause untold damage to those he or she leads.  We will recall that one of the things that led to the fall of the Soviet Union was the falsification of reality.

 

OR never succumbed to the temptation of populism. He always made sure that whatever positions he advocated and encouraged others to adopt were informed by the truth. In this way, for OR, the pursuit of the truth was not a goal in its own right, but to create liveable conditions for all of humanity.

 

His concern for humanity was not limited to the borders of South Africa; it extended beyond our borders to the whole continent and the rest of the world, wherever there was injustice.

 

In 1975, reflecting on the importance of the then forthcoming meeting of the Organisation for African Unity Ministerial Council, in his Presidential address to the extended meeting of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, Oliver Tambo echoed the pan-Africanist vision of Kwame Nkrumah when he said, "It is a meeting about the goals and future of our struggle, and future of a people colonised, oppressed, exploited and subjected to racial indignities. It is a meeting about the future of Africa.

 

"It is a meeting whose results will test anew Kwame Nkrumah's declaration … that the independence of any one African country is meaningless, repeat meaningless, except in the context of the total liberation of Africa."

 

The OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative, whose key objectives include contributing to expanded research and innovation capacities in and for Africa, in alignment with the AU Agenda 2063 and AU Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024), is a good way to honour the legacy of a leader who dedicated his life to the liberation of our African continent.

 

For many years the African continent has been lagging behind in the development of science and technology, and this deficit has been at the centre of the developmental challenges that many of our countries are facing.  For this reason, the strategy I have referred to above is firmly anchored on six distinct priority areas that contribute to the achievement of the AU vision – the eradication of hunger and achieving food security; the prevention and control of diseases; communication (physical and intellectual mobility); the protection of our space; living together and building society; and wealth creation.

 

As the DST we support the OR Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative.  We are very pleased that 60% of these chairs will be awarded to female researchers, as this is in line with our departmental objective of reducing gender inequality in research. Science should not be a preserve of any race or any gender; it should be an inclusive enterprise.

 

I am certain that Oliver Tambo would have agreed with the eminent scientist, Freeman Dyson, who wrote in an essay called "The Scientist as Rebel" that "The vision of science is not specifically Western. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of ancient science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it."

 

Because Oliver Tambo chose to live a good life in a bad life, he would have insisted that the pursuit of truth in science should not be for its own sake. Instead it should be aimed at alleviating poverty, disease and conflict in Africa.

 

I thank you.