Adelaide Tambo: The Woman Behind The Iconic Name And Legacy

adelaide Tambo

#MaTambo90: The woman behind the legacy


By Nomali Cele

Mam’ Adelaide Tambo was born on this day, 18 July, 90 years ago in the Vaal. Her life became something for the history books from a very young age – she joined organised resistance at the age of 18 when she joined the ANC Youth League and was soon elected a chairperson in her branch. Her policial activism and her career as a nurse stood side-by-side in the early days, a foretelling of what was to come later in her life in exile.


How exactly Ma Tambo ended up in exile is wholly credited to her dedication to the anti-apartheid movement. As the story goes, her new husband, whom she married in 1956 when he was already on trial for treason and out on bail at the time, came home from an ANC meeting with the news. ANC president, Inkosi uAlbert Luthuli — then ANC president — had requested that the Tambos go into exile voluntarily. The goal was to start operations outside the country, garner international support and make sure the world did not forget the atrocities happening in apartheid South Africa.


While the decision for Mam’ Adelaide Tambo’s husband, OR Tambo, to go to exile was heavily contingent on him taking the family with him, a lot of the expectation fell onto her. In 1998 interview with PBS, she shared her husband’s words after it had been decided that he would leave the country and the motivation for ensuring that he is able to take his loved ones. Basically, the movement recognised that the only way for him to focus on the task at hand was for him to know that his family was safe and growing and thriving, something the apartheid government would have thwarted were they left behind. His entire focus needed to be on the struggle.

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This big ask by the movement led to Mam’ Adelaide Tambo not only being a primary caregiver to the Tambo children but also the breadwinner. In London, she worked as many as three jobs at a time. And any downtime she had was ploughed back into the movement. Hers was the “invisible” labour that went into the anti-apartheid struggle. All her work to keep the family safe and happy meant that her husband was able to carry out the ANC’s diplomatic mission without worrying about that aspect. Of course, the reach of the apartheid government was felt in the Tambo London household and, in the end, the children were sent away to boarding school.


Zengeziwe B. Msimang, Chief Executive Officer of the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo foundation tells Kaya of Ma Tambo’s life in exile:

“Ma Tambo was the centre of the community of exiles in London – where she lived with her three children. Oliver Tambo’s work schedule and the fact that the ANC had headquarters in Lusaka and camps in Tanzania and Angola amongst others meant that he was rarely at home. Her work for the anti-apartheid movement lead to her being awarded the Noel Foundation Life Award in Britain, joining other formidable South African woman such as Helen Suzman and Judge Navanethem Pillay.

The house in which Mam’ Adelaide lived in Muswell Hill, England was forever full of young people. Ma Tambo’s house was the go-to place for South African freedom fighters upon their arrival in the UK and she was a beacon of stability for all in the South African community which was racially and spiritually diverse.”

On her 90th birthday and beyond, we honour Mam’ Adelaide Tambo.


Learn more about Ma Tambo’s work and how you can be a part of building on it for future generations by visiting the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation website

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