Adelaide Tambo

Adelaide Tambo

Introducing Adelaide Tambo, whose name is now given to the former Kensington Drive in Durban North.

mama tambo

Adelaide Frances Tambo was born on 18 July 1929 at the Top Location, Vereeniging, in the Vaal Triangle. Ma Thambo, as she was affectionately known, died on 31 January 2007 at her Hyde Park home in Johannesburg at the age of 77.

Her introduction to politics was brutal; at the age of 10, she witnessed her 82-year-old grandfather being publicly whipped until he collapsed in the town square. As she was to recount later in life:

“His brutal and humiliating treatment at the hands of the police was the trigger, the deciding factor.”

While a 15-year-old at Orlando high school in Johannesburg, she started working for the ANC. She joined the youth league (ANCYL) at the age of 18, soon becoming chair of her local branch, and helped to start up others, including one at Pretoria General Hospital, where she was a student nurse. It was through the ANCYL that she met Oliver. He proposed to her in 1954, but it took two years before she accepted him.

On August 9 1956 Adelaide took part with 20,000 others in the Women’s March on the Union Buildings in Pretoria – then the seat of white government – in protest against the pass laws.

That December, three weeks before their wedding was scheduled, 155 leading members of the ANC, including Oliver, were arrested and charged with treason. Fortunately, they were granted bail, and the wedding went ahead.

Adelaide Tambo Drive

After the Sharpeville massacre of March 21 1960, when 69 people were killed after police opened fire on a pass law protest, the ANC asked Oliver to lead it from exile. Adelaide followed a few months later.
In London she worked as a nurse to support the family, while her husband travelled extensively.
While exiled in London, Adelaide Tambo was a very active member of the ANC and the anti-apartheid movement.
She had a strong physical presence – reinforced by a variety of traditional South African headdresses and garments – a booming voice and laughed a lot.


adelaide tamboWith her commanding personality, sometimes almost intimidating, she had an ability to get results; she knew just about every African and Asian ambassador and was highly regarded by the diplomatic corps. She gave lavish parties in her home in Muswell Hill, north London, where actors, writers, journalists and political figures often visited. But she also held down a job at the nearby Whittington hospital, and did agency work as a district nurse, sometimes putting in up to 20 hours a day.

The couple returned to South Africa in 1990, after the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC. Mandela insisted that the returning Oliver Tambo remain ANC president.

In 1994 she was elected to represent the ANC in Parliament. Besides serving as national Treasurer of the ANC Women’s League, Adelaide occupied herself with community work, She launched the Adelaide Tambo Trust for the Elderly and was honorary life patron of the Cape Town City Ballet.

Her contribution to the liberation struggle and commitment to community projects earned her several awards, namely, the Noel Foundation Life Award for initiating the anti-apartheid movement in Britain; the first Oliver Tambo/Johnny Makatini freedom award in February 1995; the Order of Simon of Cyrene in July 1997, the highest order given by the Anglican Church for distinguished service by lay people and, in 2002, the Order of the Baobab in Gold.


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