OR Tambo never despised the BC movement, as suggested by Herbert Vilakazi, writes B ernard m agubane

I have read Herbert Vilakazi's article "Call to rehabilitate Zulu Prince" in Sowetan of Thursday, May 31.

I have read Herbert Vilakazi's article "Call to rehabilitate Zulu Prince" in Sowetan of Thursday, May 31.

Though I support every effort to find common ground, especially where differences of political opinion led to the loss of life and limb, I take issue with some of Vilakazi's recollections.

He writes: "Towards the end of the 1970s, Tambo, Ben and I were walking down Amsterdam Avenue in New York City.

" 'I am having problems with these boys,' said Tambo. "I asked: 'Which boys?' Tambo replied: 'These 76 boys. They say I must stop having relations with Buthelezi, in fact, that I should consider him an enemy.'

"We continued walking in silence for some seconds, then Tambo uttered one word in Nguni: 'Abazi'."

In the original article e-mailed to a lot of us, he had made the following disclaimer: "I have not asked Professor Magubane whether he still remembers this event; but it remains very clear in my mind."

Why did he did not ask if I still remembered that incident? He is silent.

Vilakazi's article appeared in Sowetan with this fictitious conversation, but without the disclaimer in the original. I am not quite sure whether he left it out or whether you edited it out.

[Editor's note: Vilakazi's 7500-word speech was cut to a fifth of its length for our newspaper article. This qualifying statement was deleted in editing.]

I called him to ask why, if he was not sure, he had decided not to verify the conversation with me. When he was thinking of writing the article he had [spoken to me], but he made no mention about the walk with OR.

I told Vilakazi that given the threat against ANC leaders in general and Tambo in particular, there is no way OR would walk by himself down Amsterdam Avenue. What also amazed me about Vilakazi's article is that he can recall the conversation so vividly but is vague about the year it took place. He only says "towards the end of the 1970s".

OR was a founder member of the ANC Youth League, which had rediscovered and reinjected black consciousness into the organisation in the 1940s. He understood better than most the existential imperatives that had brought about black consciousness and its transitory nature. In a wide-ranging interview he gave in October 1977 to Sechaba, the official organ of the ANC, he was asked about the black consciousness movement.

Tambo gave this profound answer. "In one sense, in the racist context, it is perfectly natural to be conscious of being black. You are reminded of this everywhere you go. Everything reminds you - where you live, where you work, the right to be there to work. You are there to be ruled.

"The whites are made to be conscious to be white. There is black consciousness as much as there is white consciousness. That doesn't make black consciousness a movement, however, except that people recognise their separateness.

"When the people decide to fight for their rights as blacks, as the most deprived, people are reacting to a situation created for them. But they are not going to stay in that situation all the time, because they are fighting for human rights basically. They are not fighting white people as white people. They are fighting a white system, but not just because it's white, though it is presented in that form.

"Basically, the struggle is for justice, for human rights. And because it is a struggle for justice, it is capable of being supported by all human beings who support just causes, irrespective of what race they belong to. There it should be possible, even in the South African situation, for many whites to participate and join and to sacrifice in a struggle to ensure majority rights.

"At that point what is called black consciousness begins to change and increasingly assumes the form of what we have been talking about all the time in the ANC - the struggle for a non-racial South Africa.

The black consciousness movement had never applied its collective mind, in the manner Tambo does, to clearing ideological differences among its adherents between those who subscribed to black consciousness as a means to an end and those who saw black consciousness as an end in itself.

Contradictions began to surface once exponents of black consciousness found themselves in exile, when it became clear they may have been passengers travelling in the same train to different destinations.

To suggest as Vilakazi does that OR despised the black consciousness movement when many of its adherents ended up in the ranks of the ANC is mischievous, to say the least. Wilfully or not he distorts OR's position.

Luli Callinicos points out in her biography of Tambo : "Despite political differences, Tambo exchanged courtesies with his black brethren . Tambo kept the lines of communication open to all. Like Mandela, he was constantly on the alert for possible political openings for the ANC."

This gives context to the meetings between Tambo and Buthelezi. Callinicos says Tambo was "keenly aware of the ambiguous game in which Buthelezi was enmeshed. He was familiar with the tactics of ambiguity of the oppressed and accepted its necessity."

Buthelezi said he would respond to attacks on him.