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date: 17 January 2021

South Africa’s African National Congress in Exilelocked

  • Colin BundyColin BundyHistory Department, Green Templeton College, Oxford


The African National Congress (ANC) operated in exile for just over three decades, from 1960 to mid-1990. It developed from a flimsy and inexperienced “external mission” to an exiled organization caring for thousands of full-time members and maintaining an army, Umkontho weSizwe (MK), which by the 1980s numbered about 5000 soldiers. Based predominantly in Tanzania, Zambia, and Angola (though with members and offices in many other countries), the exiled movement established schools, hospitals, farms, and factories; it published and broadcast energetically; it lobbied for international support and established a diplomatic presence in dozens of countries. By the late 1980s, it was clear to the apartheid regime that it could not defeat or ignore the ANC but must enter negotiations with the organization. Equally, it was clear to the exiled leadership of the ANC that armed struggle relying on Soviet bloc funding was no longer feasible. Negotiations, and not military victory or seizure of power, was the only available option.

The ANC was pushed to the brink of survival but recovered, cohered, and regrouped, especially after 1976 when its membership and influence increased substantially. By 1990, through a combination of popular support inside South Africa and international solidarity, the ANC was swept to the status of government-in-waiting. Yet the exile experience was by no means an uninterrupted success story. The organization was variously beset by factionalism, rank-and-file disquiet, security failings, and an armed wing that saw little armed action. The ANC’s exile experience has generated controversy: over its relations with the South African Communist Party in exile; its human rights record, especially in the MK camps; and a political culture shaped by secrecy, militarism, and hierarchy. The “reinvention” of the organization in exile was a striking achievement—and it came at a cost.

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