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OLIVER TAMBO: Back to the Archives


Sipho Mnyakeni reflects on the legacy of Oliver Tambo, as seen through the Dear Oliver Tambo production.

“Let us put away the tree; we shall dust it again next December to celebrate Christmas.” This represents a conversation in a majority of homes just at the end of every Christmas Season.

Christmas is used to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. When the festivities are done, many people pack Jesus away in some storeroom and rehash him in time for the next celebrations. This piece is about Oliver Tambo.

Just as Christ is only relevant as a source of festivities once a year, only to be discarded till He is needed again, Oliver Tambo is in danger of suffering the same fate. Allow me to rant.

When 2017 was declared the ‘Year of Oliver Tambo’, I was particularly excited because I had spent the past 8 years working on a production to pay homage to this great man. The work we have done, initially unfunded, included, inter alia, poetry recitals, music presentation, musical theatre and a lecture on ‘leading like Tambo’, which was delivered by the stimulating speaker Bonsai Shongwe.

All these happened between 2007 and 2016. In 2017 we received funding from the Mzansi Golden Economy Programme of the Department of Arts and Culture, and we energetically looked forward to celebrating this giant of a man with the whole country as part of a variety of events.

I must hasten to say that what I have observed is that, as captured in the article about Dear Oliver Tambo on this same platform, “These people don’t care about Oliver Tambo.”

By ‘these people’ I refer here specifically to a few officials in the public sector who have been mandated to drive the development of the arts, amongst others, and yet fail dismally in this task.

There are many young people and art practitioners of diverse ages who have made calls to theatre managers for an opportunity to stage shows in honour of Oliver Tambo, but such requests were (and continue to be) met with a stingingly cold response. Chief of these evasive responses is the “NO RESPONSE” tactic to emails, calls and texts sent to these custodians of public trust.

Then there is the popular “we are FULLY booked” auto-mated reply that kills many a dream. Those who live close to these theatres are shocked when we tell them their theatres are always, perpetually booked. In one instance I remember driving to the so-called “fully booked” venues for three consecutive weeks to see what this fully booked theatre is busy with.

To my dismay, every time upon arrival at the theatres, I would find their doors locked—and this would be the exact time at which I had requested to make use of the venue. I do not have an explanation on why would people book a theatre the whole year and not use it? Gatekeeping, perhaps?

Is it true that some theatre managers forego their responsibilities to provide opportunities for practitioners to tell stories, and begin a wretched trajectory of competing with the same people they are supposed to enable?

I do not have evidence of corruption but there is smoke, and that’s all I’m prepared to say. The pedestaling of mediocrity and sidelining of passionate, gifted and genuine practitioners in the industry are driven by the desire of the theatre manager to also “eat”.

The salary they receive is not enough, and so they need to siphon productions for their own benefit.

These people don’t care about Oliver Tambo.

Politicians give glowing tributes to the humility that Tambo embodied. They do that in the same breath as their shunning of small productions because they don’t give them the leverage they get from speaking to the connected (perhaps to share the loot collected?).

As we look back at the Year of Oliver Tambo, what can we report, apart from statues, lectures, all done in the glamour reserved for the well-known event organisers with millions in budget and sponsors lining up for the share in the opulence selfies?

What else can we report about the Year of Oliver Tambo?

Apart from the hurriedly assembled ‘productions’, do we have a story we can take to our schools going into the next few years about his legacy and the sacrifice of his generation?

Has Tambo overstayed his welcome, now that this year is coming to an end? Can our young people answer without stuttering when asked, “Who is this Oliver Tambo and why are we honouring him?” Which of his values have we honestly interrogated and actively enacted?

Back to my ‘thesis’: OR Tambo may be going back to the archives to be unleashed again when we want to make speeches. Everyone seems to be a Ph.D. in ‘what would Tambo do’ about many of our problems, yet a look at our own actions today gives a sad glimpse of the values we really believe in: crass materialism, corruption, compromised leadership, you name them.

Actions speak louder than words. Therefore, if everybody knows what Tambo would do, why is nobody doing what Tambo would do?

We have been honoured to play some part in the efforts to preserve the memory of this revolutionary giant, and also help young people to be able to answer the ultimate question: “Who is this Oliver Tambo?”

Armed with amateur actors and budding musicians, we hit the road en route Nelson Mandela Bay, Welkom, Theunissen, Bloemfontein, and Pretoria, with two more towns pending on our calendar.

The feedback we received about the show ranged from the beauty of our music to the emotiveness of the show. But the most telling comment from the audience for me was a question by a Port Elizabeth learner, who asked, “Do you have a book on Oliver Tambo?”

The appetite for learning about our leaders is the main reason we embarked on the Dear Oliver Tambo national tour. We are committed to the mission of having each young person able to answer the ultimate question of the biography of OR Tambo.

As part of the production, we commissioned a few artists to present artworks of other leaders we are mentioning in the play, so as to not isolate OR Tambo as a self-made hero, but as an organ of the broader body politic.

One of the most talented and unsung artists I have ever encountered is Khauhelo Sefali: the artistic brains behind the painting of Oliver Tambo, which features prominently in the production. Her message upon delivering the portrait is breathtaking.

Khauhelo Sefali’s masterpiece on stage during Dear Oliver Tambo. Credit: Sizwe Ntimane

“While painting,” she says, “I realised how little to nothing I know about Ntate Tambo. It’s taking me to school and I love that. Thank you. This painting has revealed truths of me I take and learn from, from now onwards.”

In this short message, filled with grateful pathos, she captured what many who have experienced our production have felt and thought about it.

Yes, we were a small production. Yes, we were working on a shoestring budget. But we managed to capture the minds of those who came to see us, so that through us they may travel down the passage of history, and ask themselves necessary questions about the state of the nation as it is today.

Dear Oliver Tambo is not a project limited to “The Year of Oliver Tambo”, and will thus live on and on and on, even when the name of OR Tambo no longer earns politicians a street cred.

Our story is not limited to mourning about lack of support from some quarters of society who are entrusted with financing us. We have resolved that ‘they don’t care about Oliver Tambo’ and only care about lining their pockets. There is nothing we can do about that.

Ours, as I have stated, is not a ministry of complaints, but compliments. We therefore pay a debt of gratitude to those theatre managers who assisted us, sometimes going beyond their call of duty to be involved in the marketing drive of our production, so that we could successfully stage Dear Oliver Tambo.

Nicky at Pacofs (Bloemfontein) and Dulcie at Ernest Oppenheimer (Welkom) were resourceful bits of help in our mission.

We are still busy knocking on doors for more travelling opportunities, trying to get this production to a bigger audience. I can only hope that the team we have been working with will continue with the same passion even beyond this declared year of Oliver Tambo.

While they pack him away into a box to be opened next year on the occasion of his birthday, we roll our sleeves to spread the message virally. Going into 2018 we will be giving inspirational and leadership talks to schools based on our observations of Tambo’s values, ethics and leadership wisdom.

uTambo uthi ayihlome!

Sipho Mnyakeni is the creator and director of the “Dear Oliver Tambo” Musical Theatre Production.

FEATURED IMAGE: The cast of Dear Oliver Tambo salute his legacy. Credit: Sizwe Ntimane

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