October 26, 2018
In Memoriam: James Tamboer, 1959-2018
We are sad to share the news that James Tamboer, one of the clinic’s clients in the apartheid litigation, passed away this week. Here, several of the attorneys who worked with James on the case, reflect on his life and this loss.
From Judith Chomsky:
James Tamboer critically set the stage for my understanding of the workers’ struggle against apartheid. Like others who came forward in the struggle against apartheid, his courage and steadfast commitment inspired both his comrades and those of us who came to know him working on the apartheid case in U.S. courts. Meeting and learning from James has given meaning to our work and pride in our association with him.
From Susan Farbstein:
James Tamboer died this week, and I don’t have words to adequately describe the loss. How do I explain my love and respect for a man who started out as a client but became a friend, an inspiration, and the source of so much wisdom and kindness. How do I describe my grief that another member of this generation of South Africans—a generation that struggled and fought and persevered and survived—has died, and that with his death we lose another piece of history and another connection to that past.
Representing James was one of the greatest honors of my life. For nearly a decade, we worked together on a case which sought to hold multi-national corporations accountable for their role in supporting and assisting the apartheid government to commit gross human rights violations. James, who was born in 1959, worked at the General Motors plant in Port Elizabeth from 1977 until 1986. As he said, “I started as a laborer and ended as a laborer.” He worked the trim line, fitting together truck parts, including chassis for military vehicles.
Before joining GM James had been politically active in the student movement, although he had never been arrested. He continued his organizing efforts with the union at GM, first as a shop steward and later as a senior shop steward. James worked not only for pay increases but also to break down racial barriers, such as separate toilets and canteens, within the plant.
He paid heavily for this involvement. He recalled 1982 being one of the worst years for him, a year in which he was arrested on a regular basis—including being taken from the GM plant—because he was a vocal and visible union leader. Security branch personnel often came into the plant, and to his mother’s home, to question James about plans for strikes or other political activities.
During intense union negotiations that year, James was detained for three weeks at St. Alban’s, a notorious prison facility where hundreds were often held without charge and subjected to police abuse. He was tortured. He described being beaten over a bench and waterboarded as the security police attempted to extract information from him about the union’s plans.
James was held again for several months in 1985-86, swept up following the government’s declaration of a state of emergency. The security forces, interrogating James about his role organizing a major strike at GM, stomped on his legs and chest. They bashed his head into the walls so forcefully that he would suffer from memory loss and epilepsy for the rest of his life.
But James was so much more than an activist and survivor. He was a husband, a father, and a pastor. He hesitated before joining the apartheid litigation as a plaintiff. He was concerned that if his children knew more about the abuse that he had suffered, they might hate the white people who had mistreated him. And he had spent his life working against hatred, and for equality and reconciliation.
Ultimately he joined the case because he wanted stories like his to be heard and because he hoped for some measure of justice and accountability, or at least acknowledgement, by GM and the other corporations. He was clear-eyed about the immense legal hurdles that we would face, but he believed in the importance of the case.
When I think of James now, my strongest memories are of him laughing—deep and loud and heartily, with his whole body—and of the way that he would lean in close, look you right in the eye, and wag his finger a bit when making an important point. I remember speaking with him after we had suffered a major setback in the case. I was apologetic and also, I’m sure, quite upset. As was his way, James offered reassurance and perspective: “We always knew this would be hard. And we have suffered so much worse.” Of course.
James, I will miss you tremendously. I will be forever grateful for the privilege of working with you and learning from you. And I will honor your memory, in my own small way, by carrying your wisdom and passion for justice with me, and by sharing it with others.
From Tyler Giannini:
When Diana Tamboer emailed me on Monday that her husband, James, had passed that morning, I was physically shaken. Sitting with it, I went to a moment etched in my mind forever; I can see James’ face – it was a conversation that he and I had at a fast-food restaurant near his house. We settled in a corner booth away from others. We sat across from each other, the Formica table top between us, and we talked. We had spoken before about his experiences – the torture at the hands of the Special Branch, the struggles to fight against apartheid. But this conversation was about whether he would be a plaintiff and a class representative in the apartheid litigation pending in New York.
I explained how much of a long shot the litigation was going to be; how many years it would take; how hard it would be; how he would have to talk about experiences that are hard to relive.
He was unphased. James simply said that he lived under apartheid and he knew all too well about the law, about the way legal systems do not lead to justice. He had no illusions about where this might go, and yet he was fully on board for the years of struggle that were ahead.
And then he said to me he wanted to do this because he had never told his children what had happened to him. He wanted them to know – not just so that they would know, but because he wanted to break the cycle of violence and hatred that defined apartheid.
No more needs to be said about James. I will miss him. And I will forever remember him and his strength, his wisdom, and his humanity.