It is crucial to recognise that the struggle against apartheid should not be credited solely to one person or group. Instead, we should expand our viewpoint and acknowledge the involvement of numerous others who worked alongside the individuals we choose to celebrate as heroes and heroines.

By Russell Baloyi

Oliver Reginald Tambo and Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela were like two peas in a pod, their friendship a blazing fire that warmed the hearts of all who witnessed it. It is our sacred duty to preserve this extraordinary bond, like a precious gem passed down through the ages so that future generations can bask in its brilliance and be inspired by its unwavering strength. Let us cherish this friendship, for it is a beacon of hope that will forever illuminate the path towards unity and justice.

Their journey began in their youthful days as students when they first crossed paths and discovered a shared passion for justice and equality. As the years went by, their bond grew stronger, leading them to embark on a remarkable partnership by establishing a law firm. Together, they fought tirelessly against the injustices that plagued our country, even during the darkest days of resistance. Their unwavering determination and unwavering belief in a better future fuelled their every action. However, their fight for freedom came at a great cost.

The oppressive regime, threatened by their unwavering spirit, sought to silence them. Mandela and Tambo were unjustly persecuted, their voices temporarily silenced, but their spirits remained unbroken.

Even behind bars, Mandela continued to inspire hope and rally support for the cause. Exile became Tambo’s reality, as he was forced to leave his beloved country behind. Yet, even in prison and in foreign lands, they never lost sight of the ultimate goal: to liberate their people from the shackles of oppression.

More importantly, prison and exile could not destroy their brotherly bond.

Speaking at the unveiling of Tambo’s tombstone in April 1998, Mandela said: “Through exile and imprisonment kept us apart for many years, Oliver was never far from my thoughts. When at times in prison there were difficult choices and decisions to make, I would also think of how Tambo would handle things, such was his strength as a strategist.”

With these words in consideration, I emphasize the importance of not attributing the fight against apartheid solely to one individual or group. Instead, we should broaden our perspective and acknowledge the contributions of many others who collaborated with the heroes and heroines we choose to honour.

In line with this mindset, I felt it was fitting to commemorate Mandela Day by engaging in the cleaning and tree-planting efforts at OR Tambo House in Zambia. Additionally, we initiated a project aimed at revitalising the house, turning it into a prominent tourist destination and a hub for diverse socio-economic endeavours.

During my first visit to the house, I had the privilege of being accompanied by the late Mbulelo Musi, also known as Moss Thema (MK name), and his friend, George Twala, who currently serves as the South High Commissioner to Zambia, Lusaka. They shared with me the fascinating story of how they used to pass by this very house without realising that it was the residence of President OR Tambo.

It was only after our liberation that they discovered this fact. Despite being friends and foot soldiers with OR Tambo’s guards, they were never informed of his whereabouts. This was due to the high level of secrecy surrounding Tambo’s address, as he was one of the most wanted individuals by the South African authorities. He was constantly on the run, and only a select few close associates were privy to his location.

The collaboration between the South African High Commission in Lusaka, Zambian National Heritage Conservation Commission, Eco City Trust, and South African companies operating in Zambia was a resounding success. The launch of the Restore OR Tambo house in Lusaka on Mandela Day not only achieved its objective but also provided an opportunity to assess the state of other South African heritage assets in Zambia that are currently at risk of being lost if not properly conserved.

One such concern is the scattered graves of South Africans who lost their lives in Zambia during the struggle days, which have yet to be repatriated. Regrettably, some of these graveyards are not adequately maintained, resulting in poor or non-existent numbering of graves. It is crucial that we address the future of these graves of freedom fighters who died in exile as a matter of urgency.

While some notable individuals, such as Moses Mabhida, Kholeka Tunyiswa, Joe Gqabi, Ruth First, etc have been repatriated to the country over the years, it is worth mentioning that President Ramaphosa also announced the repatriation of the late Secretary-General Duma Nokwe and women section president Florence Mophosho back in 2020 during the state of the nation address.

However, three years have passed since this announcement, and the repatriation has yet to take place. The family is still waiting for government leadership on this matter. The current pace of reparations is slow and painful for the families involved, and if it continues at this rate, it may not be completed within our lifetime. This poses a significant risk of these graves and many others disappearing, which would be a great loss for future generations who would be unaware of this important part of our history.

Given the large number of South African graves in Zambia and the associated costs and complications of repatriation, it is important to consider alternative options for the future of these graves, which are currently not included in any plans or budget for repatriation. One potential solution could be to create a monument park, similar to the Tazara Memorial Park in Lusaka, Zambia, which was established by the Chinese to honour the 36 Chinese engineers and workers who died during the construction of the railway line connecting Zambia and Tanzania in the 1970s and 80s.

China is a prominent player in the global economy, and as fellow members of BRICS, we have a longstanding and deep relationship with them. Leveraging this relationship, we can seek their assistance in constructing our own monument in Zambia, which could become a significant tourist attraction and contribute to the realisation of the broader African struggle liberation route.

Recognising the complexity and sensitivity of such a project, it is unlikely that the government and its agencies alone can effectively manage all the dynamics. Therefore, it is crucial to involve independent organisations like Eco City Trust, civil society groups, businesses, and the media in preserving our heritage beyond our borders.

Russell Baloyi is an independent writer and Executive Director of Eco City Trust, an organisation that focuses on the Conservation of Environment and Heritage

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