Oliver Tambo honored by South African church

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He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The life of Oliver Tambo was rooted in his Christian faith and in the Anglican Church. Under the influence of his devout mother, he was first attracted to the church when he was sent to board at the Holy Cross Mission School at Flagstaff. There, his biographer writes, he was profoundly impressed by his first experience of Easter worship, “a pageant in all its glory of colour, rhythm, finery, and the exotic aroma of incense.”

Baptised an Anglican, he went from Holy Cross to St. Peter’s School, Rosettenville, and thence to Fort Hare College, where he lived in Beda Hall, the Anglican hostel, and taught Sunday school. Returning to St. Peter’s as a science teacher, he met Trevor Huddleston, who – in the words of Oliver’s wife-to-be, Adelaide – “became a religious model” to him. He was accepted for ordination training by Bishop Ambrose Reeves but his plans were thwarted, first by the Special Branch when he was arrested and charged in the Treason Trial of the late 1950s, and then when he was sent into exile by the ANC.

Hlophe Bam has noted that in current accounts of OR Tambo’s life and work, including his time as Acting President of the ANC in exile, very little is said about what she calls his “lifelong, abiding and militant Christianity.” But it made a powerful impression on many, ranging from a host who recalls OR coming to his house in south London in the 1980s to receive Holy Communion from Desmond Tutu – this while Thabo Mbeki walked up and down the road outside, smoking his pipe – to the leaders of the World Council of Churches, who were won over by OR’s call to the churches to support the liberation struggle, when he ended a seminal speech with the words from a favourite hymn: “Who is on the Lord’s side?”

The Anglican Church of Southern Africa is proud – indeed honoured – to recognise one of our own and to confer, posthumously, the Archbishop’s Award for Peace with Justice on Oliver Reginald Tambo.