Oliver Tambo is singularly well qualified to put the case of the African National Congress to the American government and people. In background, education, and demeanor, the ANC president does not live up to the image of the outlawed anti-apartheid organization that alarms South African authorities and distresses the West.
Mr. Tambo is no communist, no Soviet surrogate, no Molotov cocktail-throwing terrorist. Son of a peasant family in the Xhosa-speaking Transkei homeland, Tambo attended South African mission schools there and in Johannesburg, and considered studying for the ministry. He came to the forefront of anti-apartheid politics during the 1950s, less with a revolutionary's fire than with a crusader's steely rage. Today, he represents the older generation in a group in exile whose most articulate supporters inside South Africa are militants born after he left the country.
Alongside Nelson Mandela - the imprisoned patriarch of the ANC - Tambo began his career as a protest politician when he helped found the ANC's Youth Wing in the 1940s.
The younger members pressed the middle-class black intellectuals who had founded the ANC in 1912 to adopt a more militant approach toward the then-fledgling apartheid system.
In 1952, Tambo and Mr. Mandela jointly opened South Africa's first black law office. But the short-lived enterprise was soon overshadowed by the partners' political involvements and by heightened pressure on the ANC from the authorities.
In the 1960s, the ANC first turned to violence to press its bid for a nonracial South Africa, and the government retorted by arresting its main leaders and outlawing ANC membership. Tambo escaped the net, having been chosen by his colleagues to open a headquarters abroad. He currently lives in Lusaka, Zambia, where the ANC has its headquarters, and he has been its president since 1967.
In that capacity, as in earlier days, Tambo has seemed most comfortable near the ANC's political center. Although on good terms with the group's South African Communist Party activists and with Moscow, he has never been a party member. He has stressed the ANC's function as an anti-apartheid organization embracing all major currents opposed to South Africa's system of enforced race segregation.
Although a black nationalist, he has rejected ``black consciousness'' skepticism of alliances with white non-Africans - whether these include South African whites or Western governments. He has also been less quick and acid than some ANC colleagues in denouncing Zulu chief Gatsha Buthelezi, the main advocate of a compromise political arrangement with South Africa's dominant white minority.
Though a supporter of violence in pursuit of the overthrow of the South African government and political system, Mr. Tambo - at least in his public statements - has taken care to draw a distinction between civilian and ``military'' targets. He has expanded the latter category to include northern Transvaal farmers, arguing that since South Africa has integrated them into its border defense system they are no longer mere civilians.
Other nonuniformed South Africans, Tambo has said, may become victims in the cross fire of an inevitably escalating conflict over the future.
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.