Last year in June, I travelled to Zambia with the Vuka Africa Foundation team and as part of our visit we paid a courtesy call the South African High Commissioner in Lusaka, Her Excellency SN Mji.
It was my first time in Zambia but having read so much about the liberation movement activities it felt like I had been there before. As anyone can guess, it would not be possible to be in Zambia and not hear anyone talk about Oliver Tambo.
The conversations about Tambo were brought to life even more by the fact that the High Commissioner was exiled to Zambia during the struggle and had close encounters with Tambo that transformed her life.
Tambo was not just the president of the ANC to her, but a father who was able to divert her zeal of fighting apartheid with guns towards education.
Among the things that came out in our conversation about Tambo was his faith in God. She recalled how he would always begin meetings in prayer and how his faith in God contributed to the quality of a leader he was. I have heard that he would have been ordained as a minister of the gospel had he not left the country.
Tambo’s faith as a weapon
As we left, the High Commission I began to ponder on a number of things I had read about OR Tambo, and his contribution to South Africa and the rest of the continent.
I realised that somehow, in most writings about the man, his relationship with God was almost downplayed as something he did on the side. But I believe it was central to everything he did.
My view was confirmed by a recent dialogue on PowerFM with Lindiwe Mabuza, South Africa’s High Commissioner to the UK, who described Tambo’s faith as a weapon that helped him to lead through those difficult years. She described him as a man who was in constant communication with God, because he prayed every day. She also mentioned that the entrance of his home in London had an inscription “Nomthandazo’” which meant his house was a “House of Prayer”.
As they say, until the lions learn to write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. In the same way, as long as the Christian community allows the story of South Africa’s liberation struggle to only be told by politicians, the glory will always be given to political strategies, tactics and ideologies, and not acknowledge the role of prayer and the Word of God.
I recently interviewed a former liberation struggle activist who was also a member of the Mkhontho we Sizwe, Apostle Marson Sharpley, on the subject politics and religion. He mentioned an interesting point, that Bible characters like Moses, were not necessarily spiritual leaders but rather political leaders.
This inspired me to quickly review the lives of some of these biblical characters, like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David and even Queen Esther. It became clear they were national political leaders whose political agenda and ideology was inspired by what God had spoken concerning their nation.
This is the same way the ANC was formed. Leaders in the community — men of faith inspired by the word of God that revealed injustice — stood up for justice and righteousness. OR Tambo was the next generation of leaders in the ANC who sought justice in the nation inspired by the Word of God.
Where did it all go wrong?
When we look at the ANC today, one wonders where did it all go wrong? How could a project pioneered by men of faith be so removed from its roots of justice and righteousness? Is there hope for recovery?
I believe the answer can be best explained by using a building as an example. One generation lays a foundation, the next would build and another would renovate and extend the house to make it useful to the needs of their generation.
The challenge comes when people fail to study the foundation and begin to renovate and add layers to the building that were not provided for in the foundation. The whole structure will inevitably collapse, and anyone in doubt would remember what happened with TB Joshua.
The history of the ANC can be likened to the history of the nation of Israel. Israel was founded by righteous men like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and produced leaders like Moses, Joshua, Samuel and King David – a man after God’s heart. But later the likes of Ahab became kings. King David could never have imagined that one day a person like Jezebel would be queen of God’s nation.
The generation of Ahab were totally disconnected from what had given birth to them as a nation. Their concern was to be like other nations, to belong to the “league of nations” of their time, to be ranked among the best nations in every possible category, forgetting the unique laws, purpose and destiny they were given as a nation. This led the nation to destruction and captivity.
However, in the midst of their captivity they received words of hope from the prophet Jeremiah, encouraging them that God still had plans to prosper them, and after their captivity God would restore to them what they had lost.
God decided not to destroy them completely because of the promise of blessing He made with their fathers who walked in His ways. I believe God doesn’t change and will not forget the labour of love for His people by fathers like Tambo.
Just men made perfect
As the ANC reflects on the life of one of the fathers in the movement, all of us must reflect. I believe Tambo is one of the people that can be referred to as “just men made perfect” described in Hebrews 12 — men who lived a life of faith but did not see the fulfilment of their hope.
Christians in the ANC must fight for the legacy of people like Tambo and those founding fathers who based their ideology on principles of God’s Word. They must pray and sing songs like Lizalize idinga lakho (God fulfil Your promise) with sincere and repentant hearts. They must not just remember the things that Tambo did, but seek to also reconnect to the Spirit that led this man.
The wider Christian community must also understand that the ANC is a project of “just men made perfect” and pray like Elijah did in the days of Ahab instead of rejoicing at its fall.
The Church must ask God to remember the labour of His people who died without seeing the promise fulfilled like Tambo and deliver their works from the grip of evil.
If God could raise leaders like OR Tambo, men who like King David were able to shepherd people with integrity of heart and skilful hands — Psalm 78.72 — God can do it again.