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Political Changes in the Soviet Union and South Africa in the 1980s-90s


The paths of the formation of the statehood in the USSR and South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s were different, although both powers adhered to similar principles of reform movements. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked the ineffectiveness of the government’s measures to strengthen the political course. At the same time, despite distinctive social problems, particularly the officially proclaimed apartheid regime, South Africa was unable to achieve significant positive changes during the designated period. Individual political figures of the USSR and South Africa (Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela, respectively) played an essential role in promoting reforms, but the results of the South African leader’s work turned out to be more successful than those of his Soviet colleague. Similar political ideologies of socialism had different implications, and the outcomes for both states in the 1980s and 1990s were distinctive.

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Ways to Achieve Political Reforms

Both Gorbachev and Mandela appealed to social values ​​as tools to achieve political reforms. According to Hahn (2018) [3], the principles of openness and freedom of speech promoted by the Soviet leader at the state level suggested moving from the outdated principles of obedience to the current regime and freedom from authoritarianism. As Johnston [4] notes, Mandela also resorted to the practice of social equality and emphasized the liberation of racial minorities from the harsh policies of apartheid that lasted until 1994 in South Africa. However, the ways to achieve reform movements in the two states were distinctive.

Even before Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, positive tendencies for changes were outlined. Cooper (2017) [1] states that in the 1980s, the Soviet economy was the subject of active discussion, and the experience of other countries, for instance, the PRC, was assessed as possible models for reorganization. In South Africa, economic issues were not addressed to the same extent since social hardships were the country’s primary concerns. Close cooperation between the state and the USSR was one of the few ways to adopt the experience of socialism and concrete reforms. According to Russell, Sirota, and Ahmed (2019) [6], South Africa had significantly less experience with political change, making it difficult for the country to implement highly effective optimization programs. As a result, Mandela’s efforts became the key means of achieving reforms and movements towards civil freedom as an indispensable aspect of a civilized society.

Gorbachev’s and Mandela’s Roles

Gorbachev and Mandela went down in the history of the USSR and South Africa as significant political figures who made real attempts to reorganize the political regime in their states. However, their results are key markers that allow drawing conclusions about the success of their approaches. The Soviet leader was a controversial person who, as Foroughi and Aidarova (2018) [2] remark, lacked pragmatism. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted from the dissatisfaction of the country’s citizens with the attempted perestroika, or a plan for change, which proves the ineffectiveness of modernizing the political course. The transformation of the USSR into a republican state could not withstand acute social pressure, and then split into separate countries was the result of people’s dissatisfaction with a single mechanism of government. Therefore, the assessment of Gorbachev’s activities is often referred to as negative, despite high expectations with his coming to power in the late 1980s and plans for cardinal changes in the state, including both social and economic sectors.

Mandela’s real political activity came in the 1990s since before that, he had spent more than a quarter of a century in prison for attempting a coup. However, after his liberation, he continued his human rights work, which allowed the leader to become President of the country in 1994 and abolish the misanthropic policy of institutionalized apartheid. Rassool (2016) [5] notes that during his reign, Mandela carried out a number of essential reforms, and most of them related to education and healthcare. He became not only a national but also a global symbol of the pursuit of justice and equality. Despite the absence of significant economic growth indicators, under his leadership, the citizens of South Africa received numerous freedoms. As a result, when comparing the personalities of Gorbachev and Mandela, one can note that the South African leader’s intransigence allowed him to achieve the desired outcomes more successfully than his Soviet counterpart. The collapse of the USSR was the natural result of Gorbachev’s inability to implement plans for political changes, and, despite the importance of both persons, the results of Mandela’s activities are more evident and significant.


Similar political ideologies of social reforms in the USSR and South Africa in the 1980s-1990s had different outcomes, and the activities of Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela as political leaders had a significant impact on the results of the countries’ development. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of Gorbachev’s failure to implement the planned modernization programs, while the South African President managed to gain recognition from his people and abolish inhuman and unethical laws. Social transformations were the key development goals of both states, but South Africa coped with these tasks more successfully than the USSR.


Cooper, Julian. “The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 30, no. 5-6 (2017): 574-576.

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Foroughi, Payam, and Aida Aidarova. “The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy. Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR.” Europe-Asia Studies 70, no. 8 (2018): 1332-1334.

Hahn, Gordon. Russia’s Revolution from Above, 1985-2000: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime. New York: Routledge, 2018.

Johnston, Alexander. In the Shadow of Mandela: Political Leadership in South Africa. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Rassool, Ciraj. “Red Mandela: Contests of Auto-Biography and Auto/Biography in South Africa.” Kronos 42, no. 1 (2016): 195-213.

Russell, S. Garnett, Sandra L. Sirota, and A. Kayum Ahmed. “Human Rights Education in South Africa: Ideological Shifts and Curricular Reforms.” Comparative Education Review 63, no. 1 (2019): 1-27.

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