A blunted spear: The failure of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party revolutionary war strategy 1961–1990

Kevin O'Brien*

*Corresponding author for this work

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3 Citations (Scopus)


Following a classic Maoist revolutionary war strategy, with both Guevarian and Giapist elements, the African National Congress (ANC) attempted to overthrow, through revolutionary violence, the apartheid government of South Africa. This struggle, which began in 1961 and was eventually suspended in mid-1990, witnessed the general failure of the ANC strategy: for all intents and purposes–and despite all claims to the contrary–the ANC and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’) failed to overthrow of the South African state by force, the purpose for which it was intended. The strongest indication of this was that the ANC was never able to establish (Phase One of revolutionary war) effective internal underground structures of any duration within South Africa. This much was clear when the ANC was unbanned in 1990, but was recognised long before: in October 1986, the ANC stated that ‘despite all our efforts, we have not come anywhere near the achievement of the objectives we set for ourselves’. The ANC's ‘use’ of the UDF structures inside South Africa, in this sense, was not the same thing as establishing effective internal ANC/MK structures in the way that they intended. The ANC/South African Communist Parry (SACP) also underestimated continuously the ability of the government to react strongly and viciously to the ‘Revolutionary Onslaught’: at least part of the blame for this underestimation lay with the promotion of the armed struggle over all other activities. In eidle, the ANC/SACP were unable to reach back effectively into the country to lead a revolution. In the end, the apartheid regime was defeated not by guerrilla action or by revolutionary overthrow, but through the mass action of millions of South Africans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-70
Number of pages44
JournalSmall Wars and Insurgencies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2003

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