How to honour Mama Tambo

On Saturday thousands of people descended on Benoni to bury a stalwart of the struggle against apartheid.

On Saturday thousands of people descended on Benoni to bury a stalwart of the struggle against apartheid.

Adelaide Tambo was one of those ANC activists who never became a wildly popular hero of the townships. She would never have drawn crowds as huge as, say, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. She was not a vivacious public speaker who could whip people up into a revolutionary frenzy.

Yet Tambo worked at a very different level. Those who ended up in exile in London, where she herself was in exile and raised her children, knew that she would always be there with a cup of coffee, a word of advice and train fare to a non-governmental organisation that might help.

When she arrived in the UK she was poor as a church mouse. At one point she was so poor that the electricity and gas at her house were cut off.

But she soldiered on, working as a nurse and managing to send her children to school. In the meantime she was an indefatigable presence at protest marches, meetings and anything that roused the British to the penury of apartheid. For many, like President Thabo Mbeki, whose wedding she helped organise through her extensive network, she truly was a mother.

And so, while a mother and activist of note herself, she worked her fingers to the bone and also managed to get a masters' degree. How is that for dedication, resolve and strength?

It is sad to see her go.

Tambo belonged to a class of activist which is now, unfortunately, dying. Former president Nelson Mandela said of Tambo at her funeral that she always put her organisation and its ideals above narrow personal and sectarian interests.

In this she represented a whole generation of activists: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ellen Khuzwayo and a host of others.

These men and women are the generation that lived through darkness to bring us the precious freedom we now enjoy. These men and women are the reason why we wake up every day and believe, as Mbeki once said, that today will be better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today. This is the generation that put their own personal interests aside and fought for us to enjoy these intoxicating freedoms that many of us now take for granted.

How best to honour them? Really, it is to continue to remember what sacrifices they made to bring us where we are today. It is to continue to represent the best of what they stood for: selflessness, service, honesty and courage.

Most importantly, we must preserve, protect and deepen the democracy they fought so long and hard to give us.