Today marks the day Oliver Reginald Tambo, affectionately known as OR, would have turned 100 years old. He is by common consent a political colossal whose enduring influence and impact still reverberates globally 24 years after his passing.
But he had another admirable side that is seldom highlighted and celebrated: a passion for maths and science including many students who passed through his hands and went on to make it in their adult life.
In his home village Nkantalo in Mbizana, the community will be joined by President Jacob Zuma who will speak at the celebrations. In Johannesburg at the University of the Witwatersrand, former President Thabo Mbeki will deliver the centenary memorial lecture.
Zuma acknowledged Tambo’s contribution as a notable maths and science teacher during this year’s State of the Nation address. He said South Africa will this year prioritise mathematics and science subjects more than ever before, in memory of OR Tambo.
It is believed that by creating awareness about OR Tambo as a maths and science genius would inspire and galvanise learners and their teachers to emulate him. South Africa has identified maths and science as strategically vital subjects that can significantly help the country overcome and deal with a myriad of its developmental
challenges. Sadly though, the performance of the South African learners across the country has been uninspiring as they consistently scored poorly in international tests, lagging behind their continental counterparts.
But, according to Zuma, South Africa is slowly turning the corner. He said the recent international test results released by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality, showed that the performance of South African learners is improving.
Zuma said the results show that South Africa has shown the largest improvement of 87 points in mathematics and 90 points in science.
One of OR Tambo’s admirers is the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu)’s general secretary, Mugwena Maluleke. He said: “OR
Tambo was an African who stood for what was right and taught Verwoerd a lesson that mathematics and science were gateway subjects that can be taught and learned by anyone. He taught him that his racist theory that a black man cannot learn mathematics because he couldn’t use it on a daily basis was just but an insult to humanity.”
Maluleke laments the failure of the country’s education system to “liberate our people from mental slavery in honour of the sacrifices of our struggle heroes and heroines”.
Maluleke said this year, as part of the OR Tambo centenary celebrations it would be fitting to teach learners about “the vital lessons of history so that we can guide our present and future”.
More importantly, Maluleke said, we need to teach our children that OR Tambo was mathematics and science teacher, adding that Sadtu has been making calls for the teaching of African languages in all the schools.
“Other nations are immortalizing their glorious dead and we help them through our history books in our schools. They eloquently write about their heroes and heroines and we help them by teaching our children about them,” Maluleke said.
A brief history culled from the pages of Class Act – a digital educational training and development site, shows that OR Tambo started teaching maths and science at St Peter’s Secondary School, in Rosettenville, Johannesburg. He taught the subject for ten years producing excellent results. He continued to do well in his academic
endeavours and in December 1938, he sat for his matriculation examinations and passed with first class.He then went on to study for a science degree, a field he deliberately
He then went on to study for a science degree, a field he deliberately chose because he felt too a disproportionate number of blacks pursued BA degree studies. He later graduated with BSc degree maths and science – although his first choice was medicine – which he could do based on race considerations. He enrolled for a higher diploma in
education at the University of Fort Hare but got expelled in his final year due to his political activism.
In 1953 OR Tambo made a career switch and decided to do law, a move that brought him in contact with Nelson Mandela, who was to become his political and personal ally. They opened a law practice helping black people deal with equality and race-related cases.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa also paid tribute to OR Tambo during his recent address to Sadtu’s national general council, saying he had no doubt that had he lived, OR would be a proud member of Sadtu.
He said the best tribute to pay to him was for teachers to re-affirm their commitment to the education of the South African child.
His teachings, continued Maluleke, were about equality and freedom. His teachings were about love for one’s country and its people. His teachings were about hard work, discipline, self-development amongst many traits that we have learned from him.
“We have to emulate him and share with humanity his humility in the service of the people. We have to teach our children about him and all our martyrs in order to take charge of our presence and direct our future,” he said.