Oliver Reginald Tambo

The story of Oliver Reginald Tambo

We seek to create a united Democratic and non-racial society. We have a vision of South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity. Using the power you derive from thediscovery of the truth about racism in South Africa, you will help us to remake our part of the world into a corner of the globe on which all -- of which all of humanity can be proud.

Early years

Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo (OR) was born in the village of Kantilla, Bizana, in the Mpondoland (eQawukeni), region of the Eastern Cape, on 27 October 1917. His mother, Julia, was the third wife of Mzimeni Tambo, son of a farmer and an assistant salesperson at a local trading store. His father had four wives and ten children and, although illiterate, lived comfortably. Mzimeni Tambo was a traditionalist, but also saw the importance of Western education. Later, Mzimeni converted to Christianity while Oliver’s mother was already a devout Christian. After his birth, Oliver was christened Kaizana, after Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany, whose forces fought the British during World War 1. This was his father’s way of showing opposition to the British colonisation of Pondoland in 1878.


As a young boy, he was given the task of herding his father’s cattle. With his fellow herders, he soon learnt to hunt birds, take part in stick fighting (at which he was quite adept) and model animals from clay.



When Tambo was six his father informed him that he was to start school, which was about a kilometre from his home.  After enrolling, his teacher informed him that he had to have a “school name” and therefore his father gave him the name Oliver. Tambo passed Sub A, after which he attended another school at Embhobeni. Here he was first introduced to formal music, which became a lifelong activity and hobby.


His father, intent on providing his children with a good education, moved them to the Ludeke Methodist School, some 16 kilometres away from the homestead.  Occasionally his father would lend Tambo his horse to travel to school. To overcome the inconvenience of travelling the long distance to school his father got him to board with three families(at different times), all of whom who lived near the school.


In April 1928, Tambo and his brother Alan enrolled at the Anglican Holy Cross missionary school at Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape. His father could not afford their fees, but two Englishwomen who were total strangers to them, Joyce and Ruth Goddard, assisted by sending a sum of £10 every year to cover their educational costs. In addition, one of his older brothers who worked as a migrant labourer in Natal, (now KwaZulu-Natal) also sent part of his wages to cover additional costs. Tambo’s spiritual life was nurtured at Holy Cross where he was baptised as a Christian into the Anglican fold.


At this school, Tambo became a good cricketer and football player, and acquired quite a reputation as an athlete. He also established his prowess as a stick fighter. Among the schoolchildren at this school, was Fikile Bam, who was later imprisoned on Robben Island for Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) activities and rose to become a prominent attorney. 


Tambo excelled at his studies but due to a lack of funds he was forced to repeat Standard Six (Grade Eight) twice in spite of passing at his first attempt. In 1934 he set out for St Peter’s Secondary School in Rosettenville, Johannesburg with the assistance of Miss Tidmarsh his former teacher. 


Apart from participating in football, tennis and cricket at St Peter’s, he was also a member of the school’s choir. At the age of 16, while on holiday in Kantolo, Tambo and some friends formed the Bizana Students Association (BSA). He was elected secretary of the organisation and Caledon Mda was elected Chairperson. The aim of the BSA was to mobilise students during the holidays and engage them in organised activities.


Tambo was offered the position of Head Prefect at school but declined in favour of another student. Instead, he took up the position of Deputy Head Prefect. At about this time he renounced alcohol, vowing never to consume any more, something he did throughout his life. Tragedy struck during this period as his parents passed away within a year of each other.


In November 1936, he wrote his Junior Certificate (JC) examination, alongside Black and White students in the Transvaal (now Gauteng). For the first time in history, two African students, one being Tambo, passed the JC examination with a first class. The Transkei Bhunga (Assembly of Chiefs) awarded him a five-year scholarship of £30 per annum. The University of South Africa (UNISA) also awarded him a two-year scholarship of £20. He then sat for the matriculation examinations in December 1938, which he passed with a first class pass.