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Oliver Tambo Papers

Identifier: 2000-0144

Scope and Content

The original collection contains correspondence, diaries, notebooks, materials reflecting his changing responsibilities within the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle, photographs, audio visual materials and ephemera. Researchers shold be aware that descriptions of the contents of folders are intended to highlight significant documents, subjects or individuals and not to provide an inclusive list of materials to be found in the folder. This finding aid describes the microfilm copy of the collection provided by the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Oliver Tambo Papers were arranged at the Department of Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand (Collection ID: A2561) prior to their transfer to the University of Fort Hare. The arrangement of the papers has been retained as it was received from University of the Witwatersrand.

Microfilm rolls correspond to the box numbers as follows:

  • Roll 1 Boxes 1 - 4
  • Roll 2 Boxes 4 - 6
  • Roll 3 Boxes 6 - 12
  • Roll 4 Boxes 12 - 18
  • Roll 5 Boxes 28 - 31
  • Roll 6 Boxes 31 - 35
  • Roll 7 Boxes 35 - 37
  • Roll 8 Boxes 37 - 41
  • Roll 9 Boxes 41 - 44
  • Roll 10 Boxes 44 - 47
  • Roll 11 Boxes 47 - 51
  • Roll 12 Boxes 51 - 54
  • Roll 13 Boxes 54 - 58
  • Roll 14 Boxes 58 - 61
  • Roll 15 Boxes 61 - 67
  • Roll 16 Boxes 68 - 72
  • Roll 17 Boxes 73 - 77
  • Roll 18 Boxes 77 - 81
  • Roll 19 Boxes 82 - 87

Boxes 19 - 27 and 88 - 95 were not microfilmed.


  • undated, 1960-1992


The collection is open and available for research.

Restrictions on Use

Permission to publish from these Papers must be obtained in writing from both the University of Fort Hare, African National Congress Archives and the owner(s) of the copyright.


Oliver Reginald Tambo was born in Mbizana in eastern Pondoland in the Cape Province on 27 October 1917. He attended Ludeke Methodist School, and completed his primary education at Holy Cross Mission near Flagstaff. From there he transferred to St. Peter's Secondary School in Johannesburg. After completing his secondary education, Tambo went to the University College of Fort Hare in Alice [South Africa] and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1941. He remained at the University of Fort Hare to qualify for an honours degree but was expelled in 1942 during a student strike over demands for a democratically elected student representative council. Following his expulsion he returned to St. Peter's in Johannesburg as a science and mathematics teacher.

In Johannesburg, Tambo became involved with a group of young leaders who advocated a more radical direction for the African National Congress (ANC). Working with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede, Ashby Mda, William Ncomo, C.M. Majombozi, and others, Tambo became a founding member of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944. He served as the Youth League's national secretary and was elected president of the Transvaal in 1948 and national vice-president in 1949.

Tambo moved quickly into a position of influence in the senior ANC and was elected to the Transvaal Executive of the ANC. In 1948, along with Walter Sisulu, he was elected to the National Executive Committee. Tambo was also a member of the committee that drew up the Programme of Action in 1948, which helped move the ANC from a passive organization charged with catering to the elite, to one which mobilized the people for massive campaigns of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.

Tambo left teaching in 1947 and took up law. With the support of Walter Sisulu he was articled in a Johannesburg law firm. In 1952, he qualified as an attorney, and later that year he established a law practice with Nelson Mandela. Their legal practice championed underprivileged victims of apartheid laws.

Pressure and banning orders from the South African government forced Walter Sisulu to resign from ANC leadership leading to Tambo's appointment as acting secretary-general in 1954. Although banned himself, and restricted to Johannesburg, Tambo was allowed to retain his leadership position in the ANC. During this period he helped to guide the ANC through the Defiance Campaigns and the difficult campaigns against the Western area removal and the introduction of Bantu Education. In December 1956, he was arrested and charged with treason. He was among those discharged from the Treason Trial in late 1957. In 1958, with Albert Luthuli isolated by bans restricting him to his Natal home, Tambo was elected to fill the newly created post of deputy president-general of the ANC. In 1959, Tambo was banned and was forbidden to attend gatherings for five years.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, ANC leaders were convinced a banning of the ANC was imminent and made plans for Tambo to leave the country to serve as a foreign spokesman and to establish external missions and mobilize international support against the apartheid system.

From the banning of the ANC and PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) in 1960 until the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Tambo led the ANC's organization in exile, living in London, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. In conjunction with Yusuf Dadoo he was instrumental in the establishment of the South African United Front (SAUF), which brought together the ANC external missions, the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress), the South African Indian Congress, and the South West African National Union (SWANU). Through successful lobbying the SAUF brought about the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961. Following its initial success the SAUF broke up in July 1961.

Aided by various African governments, Tambo established ANC missions in Egypt, Ghana, Morocco, and London, England. Eventually the ANC operated missions in 27 countries by 1990. Countries hosting missions included all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with the exception of China.

When the ANC moved to armed struggle and activated Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tambo was instrumental in securing the cooperation of numerous African governments in providing training and facilities for the ANC. Following Albert Luthuli's death in 1967, Tambo was named acting president-general. His appointment was approved by the Morogoro Conference in 1969.

Throughout the 1970s, Tambo's international prestige rose immensely as he traveled the world promoting opposition to the apartheid system. In 1985, Tambo was reelected ANC president at the Kabwe conference. In that role he served as head of the Politico-Military Council (PMC) of the ANC and as commander in chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

In 1989, Tambo suffered a stroke and spent several months in Stockholm recuperating. He returned to South Africa in 1991 and was elected national chairperson at the ANC's first legal national conference in July 1991. He was offered the position of chancellor at the University of Fort Hare in 1991. Oliver Tambo died on 24 April 1993.


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Language of Materials



Oliver Reginald Tambo spent most of his life serving in the struggle against apartheid. During his years in the African National Congress (ANC), Oliver Tambo played a major role in the growth and development of the movement and its policies. He was among the generation of African nationalist leaders who emerged after the Second World War who were instrumental in the transformation of the ANC from a liberal-constitutionalist organisation into a radical national liberation movement.


The collection has been arranged in four series: A. Personal Documents, B. Office of the President, C. Special Topics, and D. Press Cuttings. The series structure was arranged in a numerical sequence (i.e., A1=Family, A2 = Finance). The numerical structure is expanded outward to reflect subdivisions (i.e., A1.1=Adelaide Tambo and A1.1.1 represents Adelaide Tambo's correspondence). In many cases the numbering system extends to several places (A12.1.2.1). These same numbers have been annotated on the documents themselves.

Series A: Personal Documents, 1960-1992 includes material relating to Oliver Tambo's family, his health, and travels. Documentation includes correspondence, diaries, notebooks, greeting cards, and get well wishes. The bulk of the material dates from 1960 to 1992. The diaries cover 1980, 1981, and 1990, but are limited in coverage, mainly representing appointments, travel and meetings. Several notable correspondents appear in the correspondence series, including Harry Belafonte, Yusuf Dadoo, Trevor Huddleston, D.F. Malan, Julius Nyerere, Olaf Palme, and Ron Segal. Several transcripts of interviews are also present in this series, as is information on interaction with the media.

Series B. Office of the President, 1960-1990 contains records relating to Tambo's activities as head of the ANC in exile. Records include official correspondence, statements, material on ANC missions, National Executive Committee (NEC), National Working Committee (NMC), and information on the various ANC departments and offices. Material on organisations associated with the ANC are also present, and have some overlap with documentation in series C. This series is particularly rich in documentation of the ANC from its banning in 1960 to the subsequent unbanning in 1990. Records reflect efforts to raise international awareness against apartheid policies and are highly illustrative of events in South Africa during this period.

Series C. Special Topics, undated has significant overlap with series B. Records are arranged in five main categories: Conferences, Countries, Individuals, Organisations, and Subjects. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) is particularly well documented in the organisations, as are anti-apartheid movements. Within the individuals, Nelson Mandela is well represented.

Series D. Press Cuttings, undated provide strong documentation on general subjects, countries, individuals, and organisations. The finding aid does not include a listing of the press cuttings.

An index of subjects, individuals and organisations follows this finding aid (found at the end of Series C) and is a useful source for finding information on specific topics, events, and people.

Custodial History

University of Witwatersrand (Collection ID: A2561) then transferred to the University of Fort Hare.

Location of Originals

University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa>, African National Congress Archives.

Alternative Form Available

Original collection is housed and the University of Fort Hare located in Alice, South Africa.

Oliver Tambo Papers. A collection of his Papers, 1960-1992, at the University of Fort Hare, African National Congress Archives
Archives & Special Collections staff
2005 April
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library Repository

University of Connecticut Library
405 Babbidge Road Unit 1205
Storrs Connecticut 06269-1205 USA US