The African National Congress in Exile

by Stephen D.K. Ellis


External Mission — published last year by C. Hurst & Co. in London — is the story of the African National Congress’s 30 year period in exile outside South Africa.  The ANC’s sojourn started after the apartheid government banned the movement in 1960, and lasted until its unbanning in 1990, followed within days by Nelson Mandela’s release from his long imprisonment.

For most of those years the ANC and its close ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP), were committed to what they called the armed struggle, a strategy intended to overthrow the governing National Party and its power apparatus and to do away with its historic policy of apartheid in the process.

The struggle against apartheid captured the world’s imagination.  Day after day in the middle and late 1980s, South Africa was at the top of the news agenda.  This epic story entered a new phase after 1990, culminating in the apparent triumph of good over evil in the form of the ANC’s 1994 electoral victory and Nelson Mandela’s subsequent inauguration as state president.  Mandela became the most admired politician of the late twentieth century.

It was a story that meant different things to different people.  For many in what was then called the Third World, it was a simple story of liberation by an oppressed people. For many British people, it was the tale of a botched decolonisation that now had a chance to redeem itself.  For many Americans, who discovered anti-apartheid only late in the day, it seemed like a repeat of the their own civil rights struggle, with Nelson Mandela standing in for Martin Luther King. 

Hindsight is the historian’s greatest asset.  Not only do new sources of information become publicly available with time, but above all it becomes possible to see events in retrospect.  Facts that were not apparent at the time, or whose significance was generally overlooked, change the way we think about South Africa’s recent past.  Using Chinese and Soviet bloc archives, External Mission shows beyond doubt that the strategy of armed struggle was initiated not by the ANC itself but by the SACP, following consultations with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing (on 3 November 1960) and with senior officials in Moscow.  It is now clear that Nelson Mandela himself briefly joined the Communist Party — a fact he has always denied — and was probably a member of its Central Committee.  Mandela seems to have joined the Party mainly because he realised that he would need external support to prosecute an armed struggle.  Since the main capitalist countries in those days were aligned with the South African government, the SACP was the key to support from an alternative group in the form of the Soviet bloc, thanks to the quality of its ties to the international family of communist parties.

Yet international backing brought with it a problem: having advertised itself as a fighting movement, the ANC had to be seen to be waging an armed struggle.  On occasions when its official patrons or allies became disappointed with a lack of militancy, they could respond by cutting their funding, as the USSR did in the early 1970s.  In reality, the ANC was unable to carry out almost any military action inside South Africa between the opening phase of the struggle in 1961 and the late 1970s, and even after that its armed struggle remained ineffective.  The tension between the ANC’s militarist aspiration and its failure to live up to it created what Communist Party strategist Jack Simons called a “great charade”— an armed struggle maintained primarily to keep up appearances.  The ANC’s rank-and-file soldiers sitting in boring and poorly supplied camps in Angola and Tanzania frequently staged protests whose central demand was that they be sent into battle. Once Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived in power in the USSR in 1985, the ANC found itself stuck with a militant strategy that even its main ally was now questioning.

These matters throw light on the ANC’s evolution in the 19 years it has been in power.  According to the journalist Allister Sparks, a leading commentator for many decades, by 2011 it had become apparent that the ANC, “steeped in a socialist ideology throughout the struggle years”, had seen “its entire intellectual universe...collapse just as it came to power”.  It was “pitched into a globalised free-enterprise environment it didn't understand and was reluctant to accept.” [1] 

The consequences are today clear for all to see.


About the author: Stephen D.K. Ellis is an historian based at the Africa Studies Centre, Leiden University, as well as the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. A former editor of both Africa Confidential and African Affairs,  he is the author of numerous books on Africa, including, most recently, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 (Hurst Publishers, 2013).


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[1] Allister Sparks, ‘The Criminal Neglect of Burgeoning Youth Unemployment’, Business Day, 6 July 2011.