Adelaide Tambo and the politics of care

Gavin Brown has recently written some articles for the website of the Anti-Apartheid Legacy Centre for Memory and Learning in London – the museum planned for the site of the former London ANC offices on Penton Street in Islington.

The first article examines the legacy of Adelaide Tambo and explores how a politics of care runs through her early activism under apartheid, her political work in exile in London, and her engagement in post-apartheid South African politics. As the article says,

From the early days of their time in London, Adelaide played a key role in helping South African opposition members adjust to exile in the UK and looking out for their welfare. She was famous for attending and helping to organise marriages and funerals within the South African exile community, extending her care not just to ANC members and their allies, but also to supporters of the Pan Africanist Congress and other organisations.

In October 1987, she challenged fellow ANC members against unproductive arguments between the ANC and PAC over their history and politics. Despite her long political commitment to the ANC, Adelaide tended to approach problems within the exile community not in terms of political rhetoric, but by focusing on practical solutions. After the Soweto Uprising in 1976, she was active in raising financial support for the families of young people who were forced into exile. At her funeral in 2007, Mandela described Ma Tambo as “a mother to the liberation movement in exile”. She often made space in her home to accommodate recently arrived exiles, particularly unaccompanied young activists.

In addition to her paid and unpaid care work, Adelaide continued to be involved in political and diplomatic work for the ANC. During her time in exile, Ma Tambo became a founding member of Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement and the Pan-African Women’s Organisation (PAWO). In London she made it her duty to get to know diplomats from African and Asian countries and raise the profile of the ANC amongst them. She threw lavish parties at her home to build these networks. At the same time, she was active in the ANC Women’s League and was not afraid of using her influence there to challenge decisions made by the men in the ANC’s leadership.

She also played a key role in ensuring that ANC women made connections with feminist organisations in London and internationally. She was a close friend of Selma James, one of the co-founders of the international Wages for Housework Campaign, which sought to make women’s unwaged care work visible and valued.

Women played a key role in every aspect of the anti-apartheid struggle – they organised in their unions, churches, and communities, they led protests, and they fought in the armed struggle.

However, as Adelaide Tambo’s personal and political life shows they also organised and supplied care for members of the liberation movements and their families.

Too often women’s care work is overlooked or undervalued. But it was essential to the survival of the anti-apartheid movement. Remembering the political contribution of this care work is not only important for how we understand the role of women in the anti-apartheid struggle, but also crucial to fighting against oppression and inequality today. Without valuing care for the people we campaign alongside, we cannot hope to create a more just world with care for each other and care for the planet at its centre.

Image: Leaflet for ANC ‘Year of the Women’ public meeting in London, 1984 (Image from the Steve Kitson Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute).

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Gavin Brown, Popular & Informal Education and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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