Former South African President Nelson Mandela joined the nation today in mourning his long-time friend and fellow veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, Adelaide Tambo.
Tambo, widow of African National Congress hero Oliver Tambo, died at her home in Johannesburg yesterday evening, according to an ANC statement that gave no other details. She was 77.
The governing African National Congress said funeral arrangements had not yet been completed.
Like her husband, Adelaide Tambo, fondly known as Ma-Tambo or Mama Adelaide, was a life-long political activist.
Mandela said he mourned the “passing away of a close personal friend, a comrade and one of the great heroines of our nation”.
“She was a mother to the liberation movement in exile, and a nationally-revered figure in our new nation. We pay tribute to a life dedicated to freedom and service,” he said in a statement released by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The foundation said Mandela was in Mozambique, but would return to Johannesburg to convey his condolences to the Tambo family and offer support.
As family and friends gathered at the Tambo home, tributes poured in.
Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane said Adelaide Tambo was a woman of great dignity and courage, the South African Press Association reported.
“I myself have sought her wise counsel many times,” he said. “She always showed great concern for the poor and for the moral values of the nation.”
SAPA also reported that British High Commissioner Paul Boateng said Adelaide Tambo had left a huge gap in the lives of many in South Africa, Africa and the UK.
“Her place in history and all our hearts is assured and her memory will live on forever,” he said.
President Thabo Mbeki said her death “amounts to a loss to the entire country and the international community”.
In her later years, Adelaide Tambo was an impassioned advocate of rights for elderly people and the disabled. She remained active in the ANC but watched in anguish as the South Africa of her dreams was blighted by violence and HIV/Aids.
“I am 77 years old. The majority of women in this country are my children. Why are you not fighting for me?” she said in a speech last August to mark the 50th anniversary of a landmark anti-apartheid march by women.
Born on July 18, 1929, Adelaide Tambo became involved in politics when she was 10 years old.
Her ailing grandfather, aged 82, was arrested in a police raid following a riot in which a police officer had been killed. He collapsed and while she waited for him to regain consciousness, she decided to devote her life to the fight against white racist rule.
Five years later she started working for the ANC as a courier, while still studying. She joined the ANC Youth League and was almost immediately elected chairperson.
She met her future husband at the launch of a new youth league branch and agreed to marry him in 1956. Three weeks before their wedding, Oliver Tambo was arrested and charged with 155 other ANC members, including Nelson Mandela, for high treason.
The wedding went ahead four days after the suspects were released on bail. The trial lasted for more than three years, ending in the acquittal of all the accused.
The Tambos fled from South Africa in 1960 upon the advice of other ANC activists. Oliver Tambo won support around the world for the anti-apartheid movement. He died of a stroke in 1993, one year before the country’s first multi-racial democratic elections.
While in exile, Adelaide Tambo helped the families of other exiles while working as a nurse to support her own family. Mbeki, who was regarded as Oliver Tambo’s protégé, was a frequent visitor to their London home.
She is survived by three children: Thembi, Dali and Tselane.