Dear Comrade President

Dear Comrade President

Oliver Tambo and the Foundations of South Africa’s Constitution

André Odendaal


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In his annual presidential address on 8 January 1986, ANC president Oliver Tambo called on South Africans to make apartheid ungovernable through armed action and militant struggle. But unknown to the world, on that very day, the quiet-spoken mathematics teacher and aspirant priest turned reluctant revolutionary had also set up a secret think tank in Lusaka, which he named the Constitution Committee, giving it an ‘ad hoc unique exercise’ that had ‘no precedent in the history of the movement’. 

Knowing that all wars end at a negotiating table, and judging the balance of forces to be moving in favour of the liberation movement, Tambo wanted the 

ANC to hold the initiative after the fall of apartheid. Assisted by Pallo Jordan, he instructed his new think tank to formulate the principles and draft the outlines of a constitution that could unite South Africa when the time came to talk in the fledgling days of freedom and democracy. The seven-member team, including Albie Sachs, Kader Asmal and Zola Skweyiya, started deliberating and reporting to Tambo. In correspondence, they typically addressed him as ‘Dear Comrade President’.

Drawing on the personal archives of participants, Dear Comrade President explains how the purposeful first steps were taken in the making of South Africa’s Constitution. Why and how did this process happen? What were the first written words? When and where were they put on paper? By whom? What values did they espouse? And how did the committee’s work fit into the broader struggle? This book answers these questions in new, paradigm-shifting ways.


André Odendaal:

André Odendaal is writer in residence and honorary professor in History and Heritage Studies at the University of the Western Cape. His dozen books include The Founders: The Origins of the African National Congress and the Struggle for Democracy (2012); Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance (2020), co-authored with Peter Hain; and the jointly edited Robben Island Rainbow Dreams (2021) on the making of democratic South Africa’s first heritage institution.