I read a quote. “You know my name not my story. You’ve heard what I’ve done but not what I’ve been through, so stop judging me”. I like that quote.
You won’t learn much of my story or what I’ve been through here, either. You’ll learn a bit of the chronology of my life. You’ll learn a little of the detail, but so little. It’s a beginning, and it’s an ending. I really, actually, don’t want to write an autobiography of my life. Jeez, I’ve done my life, and I don’t want to drag others through it. It was my life. Satisfying the idle curiosity of strangers isn’t enough of a reason or incentive to write all of what was lived. However, I was asked some questions and the answers to those questions look like this. This is a brief and checkered history of me.
I was born on 13th March 1962. My name is Dudulani Tselane Olive Pamela Boniswa Tambo. My maternal grandmother was Tselane. I was Dudulani. They called me Dudu. No one really calls me that anymore. I chose to be Tselane for high school. I remain Tselane.
I was born in Highgate, London at the Whitington Hospital. I spent my first few years at the Franciscan Convent, Copthorne, Sussex, England. I saw my parents, of course, when they could find time to see me. But I was pretty much born and handed over to the nuns.
I can’t say when I realized that mine was a political family. At what age does any child begin to appreciate that there is such a thing as a job or a career? We go to school and they ask us what our parents do. My Mum said Daddy was a lawyer; an international lawyer, which was why he travelled so much. I don’t know at what point I was aware of being in a political family. It was a growing awareness, I guess.
I grew up going to rallies and political meetings when I wasn’t away at boarding school. I grew up surrounded by the ANC in exile. I began attending rallies and meetings long before I was old enough to know what was going on. As I grew my cognizance was of just another of those things that Mum took us to where we had to sit quietly or suffer the consequences. As I grew older I grew to understand what Daddy did as President of the ANC, and who he was. Daddy talked a lot about Uncle Nelson, who was in jail and why he was in jail. When I was little I used to draw pictures for Uncle Nelson and write him letters. I thought it must be sad for Uncle Nelson to be in jail and I wanted to cheer him up. I don’t think my drawings or letters were ever sent.Mummy and Me
The 1976 uprising happened when I was 14. It was kids my age who were shot at, massacred on the streets of Soweto; kids among whom I should have grown up. It was a disturbing, grieving time. There followed a steady stream of young people who Mum would bring into the house to stay with us before finding families to take them in, or schools and universities for them to attend and people to sponsor the fees. During holidays from school I was frequently dispatched to befriend and entertain young girls who’d had to leave their families for exile. There were lots of people at home to be cooked for and shopped for and my holiday was spent in service to their needs. I listened to experiences that were sickeningly frightening, shocking beyond my comprehension or life’s experience. These were short friendships lasting as long as the brief leave from school. By the time I came home for the next holiday these young people were not around any more.
My memory is of normal happy early childhood filled with things like meeting Father Xmas in Trafalgar Square – a momentous occasion as I recall. There were funfairs on Hamstead Heath, and long walks to collect chestnuts in Kenwood Park. There was the packing of trunks with school uniform and special supper on the last night of the holiday, and the school train from Victoria Station. These are some of the things from my childhood that immediately come into memory.
We lived in Highgate until I was about 11 yrs old. We had a flat. It was a duplex. We had the top flat, which was reached by climbing a long concrete staircase. There was a small back garden in which stood a wispy, newly planted tree. When I was very young, four or five I was asking my Mum for sweets or toys, she said I should go pluck money from the tree. I went out to the tree, but there was no money on it. Mum said that other people must have come into the garden and plucked it clean. She showed me a pound note and told me that she picked it from the tree. Her friends had also picked money from the tree and they showed me their notes. Some had plucked as much as five pounds. They said I shouldn’t worry. Money would appear on the tree the next day. I could hardly sleep I was so excited about picking money in the morning. I got up extra early because I wanted to get the money tree before the other people came to pluck it. I went out but there was no money. It was so puzzling. I couldn’t understand why the tree had stopped growing money. Mum couldn’t figure it out either.
We lived in a safe suburban area, Cholmeley Park, Highgate. We ran in the streets, but they were safe streets. We played with the children of the neighborhood. We would ride around in gangs on our bikes. Later we moved to Muswell Hill, to our own house.
Ms Margaret Tracey was 70yrs old and had known my Daddy since he was a boy at the Holy Cross Mission in Pondoland. She was my godmother. I give significance to her being 70 because I asked her once when I was still young enough to believe it possible, ‘Are you a hundred?’ and she said, ‘No, I’m 70’, and after that every year we celebrated her 70th birthday. By the time she passed on I was in my mid 20’s and, old and frail though she was, still professed to being 70.
Ms Tracey lived up the road and we would go to her for high tea on Sundays. My siblings and I would sit at her dining table and eat little sandwiches, and eat cakes. My favourite was the meringue filled with cream. We would drink tea from a china tea set. We adopted each other, Ms Tracey and I. I asked her to be my Granny, because I didn’t have a grandmother. She, I think, already thought of me as her grandchild. But she accepted the position of my Granny on condition that I be very good. I loved her so much, so I was very good.
Granny was, in large part, though not entirely, responsible for my love of books. She gave me great books. I had one huge picture book with what seemed like a thousand pictures with the words written underneath. Lovely pictures. Later she bought me Enid Blyton and books about girls in posh boarding schools who said things like ‘I’ve had a scathingly brilliant idea’. She introduced me to AA Milne with Now I am Six. I loved it. ‘When I was one I had just begun……’etc. Granny introduced me to Roald Dahl’s writing. I once met Mr Dahl at a dinner party. But that’s another story for another day. My favourite book, with delightful pictures, which I loved, loved, loved was Der Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffmann. (Shock Headed Peter). It is a delightful book of cautionary tales about children who don’t behave properly and their demise. I cried so mournfully when some child came to our house and stole my book, Granny had to buy me another one.
I think I remember, when I was a baby, how she would put me in my pram, outside in the sun so that I could take an afternoon nap in the fresh air. I love to remember and transport my imagination to her garden that had a little pond and weeping willows and was crowded with bluebells.
Granny also took her job as Godmother very seriously. She was a devoutly christian woman and she would teach me special prayers and she would pray for Mrs and Daddy before tea and cakes could be consumed. Some sundays she would meet us at the bottom of the hill and walk with us to church, then take us to her house for tea and trips to the park to feed the squirrels. She loved to pray.
She once took me to a retreat. I was about five or six. I remember that the place as a kind of resort for the elderly. It was wall to wall grey haired octogenarian white people and me, this energetic little black child. As I recall, I was quite a hit. I was cute as a button, polite to a fault, and I had a lovely little English prep school accent; or was I still cockney then?
There is one holiday that pops into my memory. My siblings and I were on holiday from boarding school, but there was no one at home to look after us. I think I was about 8yrs old. We were put into an orphanage for two weeks. I remember that I told everyone who had ears that I wasn’t really an orphan; my Mummy and Daddy were coming to get me. One evil little person told me ‘your mum and dad aren’t coming for you. They are dead’. I punched that little person.
When I was 11 I graduated from prep school and, so that I could have more home life Mum sent me to weekly board at a convent in South London called Virgo Fidelis. All students were supposed to vacate the premise on Friday after school, but something was happening at home and they forgot me. Daddy came on Saturday morning to fetch me. It was a lovely surprise because I hadn’t known he was in town. We drove home talking all the way about what we were going to do over the rest of the weekend. We talked and made plans even though the threat of those plans being consumed by ANC business was ever present.
As we drove down Alexandra Park Road we could see fire engines and an ambulance outside the house in Muswell Hill. We pulled up and Daddy said I shouldn’t come into the house. I should go into the garden and wait for him there. I did go into the house, anyway. Everything was black with soot and soggy with water. There had been a fire. The oven had exploded. The kitchen was no more. Mum had escaped with her life, but she hadn’t escaped injury. The ambulance took her to hospital. I sat on the swing in the garden. I was scared. I was dazed. I was unaware of a more threatening reason for this ‘accident’ than a leaking gas pipe’s connection to the oven.
Daddy didn’t often have time to be a family man. There were always people waiting to interrupt what little time he had with us. Daddy always allowed them to interrupt that time. I like to remember how he would indulge us when I was a mischievous little one of 4 or 5yrs old. I would make him drinks out of water and juice and anything else liquid that I could find in the kitchen, whether disinfectant or dish liquid or cooking oil, or a mixture of all of the above. He called these culinary delights his ‘concoctions’. Sometimes I would be dispatched to the kitchen to make Daddy a concoction. It was a ploy to keep me busy and out of the way. I was, understandably, a bit clingy when he was around. He would pretend to take a sip of the concoctions and he would gasp and ‘mmmm’ and tell me how delicious it was. I would laugh with delight, thinking he can’t have noticed what a hideous concoction I had given him.
Later, when I was a teen, and had taken cooking lessons at school and developed a liking for it I would cook things especially for Daddy. I’d make cakes, later meals. I loved to cook and so when I was a teen Mum made me the designated cook for Daddy when he came home, and unlike my siblings who unremittingly panned my every effort, he had a very discerning pallet and, therefore, everything I cooked for him was a gourmet creation of unparalleled culinary genius.
Too often I would cook, excited that he was coming home, and we’d get a notice from someone, long after we’d been waiting, to say that he was unable to come. He’d had to go somewhere else to do something else for someone else. There were always other people who needed him. They got his attention more than we did. To the young, eager-to-please-daddy, little girl that I was these occasions were devastating disappointment. I resented that he made other people his priority. My friend’s Dads always seemed to make them a priority. Their Dad’s didn’t let them down. You can’t tell a wounded-to-heartbreak teenage little girl about the struggle. It’s not on her doorstep. It’s not her life experience. She just doesn’t understand. Mum would tell me not to be so selfish, but it didn’t help. It just poured guilt on my disappointment and resentment.
We, my siblings and I, went on holiday with Daddy in Eastern Europe a couple of times; once to the Soviet Union, and once to Romania. Daddy was a guest of the government, so we were treated like royalty. I think this was the beginning of my love affair with luxury. It was a vast improvement on Butlins Holiday Park, where Mum would take us for a fortnight in the summer.
There was one holiday that Mum and Daddy were supposed to take together in Bulgaria. I was the last one at home, so they decided that I could come along. I was 17 or 18. We spent a lot of time together on that holiday, Daddy and I. We went horse riding together. He’d grown up riding horses in the Eastern Cape. I remember trying to teach him what I had learnt in years of taking dressage lessons at Riding School. I wanted to show off to him. He beamed with pride and admired my skill, but he wasn’t interested in learning dressage. He just enjoyed riding. This holiday is one of my great memories. Daddy and I had so much fun together because we both enjoyed swimming and going out on boats. Mum was scared of the water because she couldn’t swim, so she preferred to stay on land. Daddy woke me up early in the mornings so we could watch the sunrise together. It was on this holiday that Daddy taught me to cha-cha-cha. When the band played in the evening at our hotel, we cut a serious rug. Not many people know that Daddy was dapper on the dance floor.
There were a few times over the years when Mum wouldn’t let me do something that I considered of lofty importance. I would call Daddy in Zambia. He would always call me back, eventually. I later learned that several people had to scour Lusaka to find him, because while he was there no one was allowed to know exactly where he was. Finding Daddy to overturn Mum’s rulings on important parties that she said I couldn’t attend, or braids, which she said I couldn’t have, or even drama school, where she said I would go over her dead body, was an infrequent habit, but it was a habit. Perhaps if I had understood to what extent I was throwing a cat among the pigeons I wouldn’t have done it. But then, perhaps I would.
Daddy was great with advice, and if you followed his advice you would always have a successful outcome. It was only in 1993, when I came at his behest to live in South Africa that we really lived together as a normal-ish family and had breakfast and dinner together most days and had real time to talk. I resumed my position as his cook. This was the first time I was able to sit down over an issue and say, “Daddy, what should I do about this or that situation”? This was the first time I could tell him my day and chat over any problems and get his advice. It wasn’t the first time I’d sought his advice, but I was, finally, able to tell him the results of my following that advice. He finally had time to hear it. People who were in the camps tell me stories about how he advised or encouraged them to follow their ambitions and dreams; how he always had time to listen. I envy them.
My Mum was the backbone to my life. When I was very little my Mum made up a song just for me. It was my song and she sang it too me often, right up to a few months before she passed on. The words of the song are “You are the end of the rainbow; a pot of gold. You’re an Easter bunny for Daddy and Mummy. You’re sugar. You’re spice. You’re everything nice. And you’re Daddy and Mummy’s little girl”. I wish I could share the tune. It was a lullaby. Even in my mid forties she would sing it to me when we sat together; or when I would crawl into her bed and chat about anything and every thing and we would laugh together and I’d tell her gossip that she would remonstrate that she didn’t want to know.
I called my Mum ‘Mrs.’ It was left over from an Irish woman who used to come once a week to clean our house in London and who would always ask in a broad irish accent, as soon as she was throught the door, “Where’s the Mrs”, or “Y’aright der Mrs”. We used to tease her by calling her Mrs, and as these things often do, it stuck.
The Mrs was fierce, compassionate warm and wise. When I was 5 or 6 yrs old there was a little girl at school who was mean to me. She would bully me and make me cry. I was at boarding school with the nuns and they didn’t care. I cried to Mrs, when she came to visit me at school, about the things that little girl did to me. She’d pull my hair and pinch me. Then, one day Mrs held my face in her hands, looked me in the eye and said “Next time I come I want you to tell me about the things you did to her”. I made it my business that I had something good to tell. As soon as I fought back that little girl stopped bothering me.
Because she couldn’t be with us, and could, therefore not be there to fight for us, Mrs made sure we knew how to stand up for ourselves, although, if it was an issue with teachers, which it often was, she dealt with them. She set an example in ways that would have my siblings and I talking about her with a mixture of humour and awe for hours. We would talk about the things that she had done, the people who were blatantly rude to her who she had confronted, the compassion she had displayed on this or that occasion; how undauntedly courageous she was. Many a racist teacher learned that to mess with Mrs Tambo’s kids was something they were wiser not to do.
I had a physics teacher, way back before it was established beyond doubt that I was more ‘artist’ than ‘scientist’. That physics teacher was always horrible to me, but one day he called me ‘Sambo’. It was a surprise, so I asked him “What did you call me?” He repeated it. “I called you Sambo”. I didn’t flinch. I didn’t skip a beat. I said, with all confidence in My Mum’s protective nature, “I’m going to tell my Mother you said that to me”. That Teacher pulled me aside after class and apologized and begged me not to tell my Mum. I said I wouldn’t, but I did. He stopped picking on me after that.
With all of her children in different boarding schools in Sussex, Mrs had a lot of visiting to do. She would hire a driver and do the rounds of all the schools; each was about ten or so miles from the other. By lunchtime she had us all and she would take us somewhere for lunch. We usually went to Brighton and had lunch in a family restaurant called The Golden Egg. We walked on the pier or on the beach and ate Brighton rock, which is a foot long baton of hard candy, or ice cream. At the end of the day she would deposit us at our respective schools and head back to London. This happened about once a month, as we got older, less frequently. For my early life, this was as much time as I got to spend with Mrs.
When I was older, at prep school, there was half term, and what they called, ‘exeat’ weekends, which were weekends at home. Even during holidays from school, Mrs had to work. She was a nursing sister. She worked night duty at various London hospitals. There was a significant period of time when she worked day duty, came home to sleep for a couple of hours, then worked night duty. On top of this there were the unremitting demands of the ANC, and visitors from South Africa and the exile community. It didn’t leave a lot of time.
During the fire at home Mum had broken her leg in a few places, and she was in hospital for a few months. It was back to boarding school for me, to Charters Towers, in Bexhill-on-sea. I stayed until I was 15, at which age I finally went to day school. My siblings were off at university, or in their own flats, so it was mostly me and Mrs at home, as well as the many and frequent visitors.
When we were in the car, just the two of us, Mrs would teach me songs. The car was our singing place. Mrs loved to sing. She knew all the Cole Porter’s songs by heart, and where she couldn’t remember lyrics, she would make them up. Mrs also loved to sing hymns, and after all those convents I knew the hymnbook. We also sang Thula Thula and a couple of numbers from The Dark City Sisters. While we were in the car together we were a two person celestial choir. We did a lot of shopping so we were in the car together a lot. We both loved clothes shopping, but mainly we did grocery shopping, which was always the great treks to the wholesaler in North London, the butcher in East London, and the vegetable market at Covent Garden, which is West London; and the cash and carry in Tottenham. Mum’s freezer was always full because she never knew who, or how many would drop in and require feeding.
I did a secretarial course straight after A’levels, after which I got a job in the education department at the Tate Gallery. It was the year between school and university. The guy I worked for was horrified by the extreme limits to my art education, so he would send me to follow tours around the gallery and learn. It was a great job. I learned much about art and I learned to be horrified when I saw great Turners, Wilsons or Constables on chocolate boxes. I rarely talked about politics. I was like every other young well to do English girl. There was nothing about me to distinguish me as the daughter of a political leader I shared a flat in Chelsea with two other girls.
I remember a new boyfriend coming to my flat. I had a beautiful framed picture of Daddy on the mantle piece and my boyfriend said to me ‘Why do you have a picture of Oliver Tambo on your mantle piece’? I was surprised that he even knew of my Dad. He was surprised to learn that Oliver Tambo, who he greatly admired, was my Dad. I was a party girl in those days. I rarely talked about the political side of my family. I was into the latest fashions, art galleries, fine restaurants, theatre, nightclubs and giving dinner parties. I was into being social.
I would go to rallies and marches, of course. If there was a concert in the park my friends were there with me. If T-shirts needed to be sold at The Notting Hill Carnival, we were the team to sell them, or hand out literature like Sechaba. We would stand outside tube stations or work the crowds on busy London streets. We loved it. My English friends also learned to toyi-toyi. I taught them the words to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, which they would sing loudly, not quite word perfectly, and with great enthusiasm.
When I went to university I took a few political science classes. I was more interested in Literature and French. Daddy asked me why I was taking political science and I told him I felt obliged. His response was that I shouldn’t think that I had to take politics because of him. He said ‘I know you love literature. Study what you love. I was grateful. I’m also grateful that I took those courses.
I first came to South Africa in 1990.
When I first came to live in South Africa I came in ignorance and without expectation. There was much that I found strange and fascinating and unfamiliar; some that I really recoiled from. When the family in Sharpville slaughtered a sheep I was aghast. I had never seen an animal die before. I was very uncomfortable with eating something that’d had a pulse only a few minutes earlier.
I had been on a spiritual search. I was raised a catholic, but over time I’d explored other spiritualities. I practiced a commercial form of Buddhism for a couple of years. I had explored the esoteric and I had read about Credo Mutwa and the mysticism of the Sangoma. I had a romantic idea of going to ‘the mountain’ and being blessed by the Sangoma and communicating with my ancestors. Mum and Daddy were staunch Christians, and they were against the idea. In spite of their opinion, I wanted to go to a Sangoma, but since they were against it and no one wanted to oppose their wishes, no one would take me. That ambition was shelved and only acted upon later.
I did an interview with a newspaper when I’d been home a very short while. I talked about how odd I found it that this was my country and yet I felt so foreign from it and so much an ‘outsider’. I was probably very ineloquent. I expressed my discomfort with the tradition of slaughtering. In fact my discomfort was with eating anything, be it animal, mineral or vegetable, that wasn’t born, harvested and nurtured on the supermarket shelves. I would never have picked an apple from a tree and eaten it. The ‘kill it yourself’ principle was alien and awful, I thought.
I came from total anonymity. I came from a world where my opinion on anything was not once sought by the press or the public. Why would it have been? I was on my own path, in a world that had nothing to do with any politics. I was surprised that anyone cared what I said, and amazed that anyone bothered to have a public response to it. But, people reacted as though my every thought or feeling was an essay of malice towards them personally and the retaliation was vicious.
I called one of my friends in London when all that flared up. I was so upset. I told her about what had happened and that people who I didn’t know, people who knew nothing about me were writing about me in newspapers and saying nasty mind-bogglingly nasty things. She just laughed and said “But, Darling this is your first scandal. Let’s hope your next one is racy.”
It was the kind of response typical of my friends in Europe for whom life was not to be taken too seriously. To me this was worse than just a scandal, but she made me laugh and brought me some comfort. Someone drew a cartoon of my lying on a therapist couch, saying ‘I don’t know who I am’. It was in the newspaper. It was painful because it was accurate. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know my culture, my language. My behaviour and sense of dress was under bombardment. I was always put upon by people who said that I had to be different which, made no sense to me at all. Be different in order to do what? To pleas who? I had to fit into a new world, a new way. I didn’t know where I fit in, or indeed if I fit in. As it turns out, I didn’t fit in and never would. I felt very painfully, at the time, that I didn’t fit in at all.
I didn’t learn to shut up. I said, in another interview, that I didn’t think I would fall in love with a South African man. The statement was taken out of its context, as these things usually are. But I never explained the context. The source of me saying that was the fact that at the time I was actually dating a South African man. He was my very first South African man and I really liked him, but we’d bumped into some culture clashes. He found me too ‘free’. I talked to his friends when we were with his friends. It only happened a couple of times that we were with his friends. He thought a conversation meant I was flirting. Jealousy! Ugh! He found me too expressive in bed. He would ask ‘where did you learn that’? And he really wanted an answer. What kind of man wants answers to that? He took me to a budget speech dinner in Cape Town. Then he left the dinner to go somewhere, with no explanation. He left me there, alone, at the dinner. Then he got upset because I left. He’d been gone for an hour when I left. What did he expect? Who does that? He almost wanted me walking 10 paces behind. There was ‘stuff’! When he met my parents he descended into sycophantic behaviour of gargantuan proportions. It was disgusting. So when I spoke to the paper, I spoke out of frustration with the relationship I was failing to have. Perhaps I should have explained. But I didn’t. Hence, furor!
During the furor I, naturally, didn’t want to stay in South Africa. I thought seriously of packing up and returning to England. I imagined that I was universally hated in SA and I didn’t even know the haters; the haters certainly didn’t know me. I wasn’t even clear why I was being hated. I was asked questions and I answered them. How do people hate you for feeling lost and out of place? I read, with horror, what they said about me in public forums. I wanted to run away, but I didn’t. More than to run, there was something in me that wanted, in fact, needed to stay and to understand my country and my culture; to find out who I was. The furor is long over now. It’s irrelevant to today, but it’s not forgotten. Today, 20 years after the fact, people still bring it up.
I have stayed for 20years in SA. In that time, over time, I have become South African. Some people got very abusive when I said that I felt very English. I don’t know what else they expected. I had spent 30 years, my entire life, in England. I was born in England. I had an English education. I grew up with English customs. In fact, the more I learnt about my heritage, the more alien to it I felt. When everything flared up at me I felt that there were people who despised my story; who would have liked my story to be different. I don’t know why anyone would want to be the architects of my past, or what they would like that past to be.
I have enjoyed a good life, but in many ways I also wish that my story had been different. I wish I had grown up with my parents daily with me. I wish that my father sat with me at breakfast every day and sat with me at supper every evening, and listened and observed and contributed daily to me becoming me. I wish he had been there. I wish that I had grown up visiting Nkantolo, the Tambo home, during my holidays and speaking Xhosa and eating traditional foods. I wish I had grown up in South Africa. I didn’t.
The Tambo Home: NKANTOLO, Bizana, Eastern Cape.