Question 3 marking guideline (Detailed)

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Evaluate to what extent Gorbachev’s reforms were responsible for the collapse of the USSR.

Learners have to explain in what ways Gorbachev’s reforms weakened the Soviet Union, but they must also consider what other factors played a part in its collapse and then assess how far the reforms were responsible.


Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet Union in the late 1980s were intended to resolve problems and to strengthen the country. However they led to major political and economic changes which caused considerable internal opposition and a weakening of the control of the communist government. This, together with other factors such as the collapse of communist governments in Eastern Europe and nationalist breakaway movements in the USSR, led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its dissolution in 1991.


Gorbachev’s reforms

• Withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan

• Glasnost: greater freedom of speech and the media

• Perestroika: enabled market forces to operate and ended state subsidies

Results of reforms

• Greater support from the West and lessening of Cold War tensions

• Economic problems: price increases and shortage of goods

• Public and open criticism of the state and the Communist Party

Other factors leading to the collapse of the USSR

• Reforms and free elections in Poland (1989) but Gorbachev indicates USSR will not intervene

• Popular protests elsewhere in Eastern Europe and fall of Berlin Wall (1989)

• Rise of separatist nationalism in republics of Soviet Union (Latvian declaration of independence 1990) following events in Eastern Europe

• Conservative and military coup against Gorbachev (1991) defeated but Gorbachev lost authority to

Boris Yeltsin

• Yeltsin dissolves USSR and replaces it with Commonwealth of Independent States (1991)


Although Gorbachev hoped to strengthen the Soviet Union by his reforms in the late 1980s, in fact the opposite happened and local opposition to the government and Communist party grew. This in turn encouraged reform and popular opposition to communist governments in Eastern Europe which Gorbachev was unwilling and unable to suppress. The breakaway of the different republics of the USSR and the failure of conservative communist party leaders to regain control led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reforms had started the process but it was the events in

Eastern Europe and the subsequent rise of independence movements within the USSR which finally ensured that the Soviet Union could not survive.



The collapse of the USSR can be contributed to a number of factors, of which the Gorbachev reforms were two of the main contributing factors. The candidates should discuss these reforms and their effects in detail and also discuss the other factors and how they contributed to the USSR’s demise.

Candidates should include the following aspects in their response:

  • Introduction: Candidates should contextualise the question (who, what where, when) and outline very briefly the main line of argument.


  • Economic problems in the USSR (1980’s) – Afghanistan, costs within the Cold War context (arms and space race), costs of control in satellite states and aid to communist states worldwide

  • Gorbachev reforms- Glasnost (openness) and effects, Perestroika (restructuring of the economy) and effects

  • Demands in satellite states – Poland, other satellites, Berlin Wall (1989)

  • Popular protest in satellites and USSR

  • Growth of Nationalism in the Baltic states and the rest of the USSR

  • Split within the communist party and Russian succession (role of Yeltsin)

  • Role of the USA in putting pressure on the USSR (arms race and end of Cold War)

  • Any other relevant point

  • Conclusion: Candidates should sum up their argument with a relevant conclusion.




The effects of the collapse of the USSR on South Africa
Attitude of the West towards SA during the Cold War:

  • Wanted to ensure that the USSR did not control mineral resources or Cape sea route

  • Alarmed when communist governments came to power in Angola and Mozambique

  • Accepted NP government’s anti-communist propaganda

  • SA convenient as pro-Western and anti-Soviet ally

Policy of West towards SA during the 1980s:

  • Reagan and Thatcher resisted calls for economic sanctions

  • Reasons: strongly anti-communist , substantial US and British investments in SA

Late 1980s: Policy began to change:

Reasons: Influence of anti-apartheid human rights organizations increased, SA no longer significant in Cold War politics, Western governments applied pressure on SA
Collapse of USSR

  • Glasnost

  • Perestroika

  • Economic collapse

  • Effect on USSR

Effect of collapse of USSR

  • NP could no longer use communist threat as an excuse for apartheid

  • NP could no longer rely on Western backing – one of the reasons for change of policy in 1989/1990

  • NP more comfortable to negotiate with ANC seeing that multi-party democracy flourished world wide (communism collapsed)

  • NP knew ANC would opt for capitalism (white interests would be protected)


ANC also affected by collapse of the USSR and change in balance of world power:

  • Lost financial support from USSR

  • Many ANC followers expected socialist economic policies after 1994

  • Instead ANC government chose free market capitalist policies (e.g. GEAR)



The candidate should analyze the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union had on South Africa.



Briefly discuss the situation prior to 1989 or introduce the topic in any other suitable way.


  • SA’s policy of Total Onslaught (SA 1980s) – impact of collapse of USSR on justification for apartheid

  • Fall of the Berlin Wall

  • Reaction by Americans and the European community (impact on NP’s relations with the west and western backing)

  • Collapse of the USSR and effects on political groupings: effects on NP, effects on ANC

  • Other factors: Role of sanctions and international pressure, role of violence, unrest and liberation movements

  • Impact of collapse of USSR on situation in Angola and SADF

  • Impact on A’s role in Namibia (Namibian independence)

  • De Klerk’s announcements in parliament (realizations for SA)

  • Unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP and release of prisoners and Mandela

  • Other


Conclude by referring to how the collapse of the USSR contributed to the reforms in SA or conclude in any other suitable way.



To what extent did the ending of the Cold War influence events in South Africa at the time?

Learners need to show the connections between international events (end of the Cold War, collapse of the Soviet Union) and events in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Note that the question also asks ‘to what extent’, so learners will need to point out that these were not the only factors influencing events in South Africa at the time, and that other issues (e.g. internal resistance to apartheid, impact of economic sanctions) were also important.


The years 1989-90 were momentous in world history. The Berlin Wall fell, communist government sin eastern Europe collapsed and in 1992 the Soviet Union itself was dissolved, thus ending the Cold War. In South Africa, de Klerk’s announcement of the unbanning of the ANC, SACP, and PAC in February 1990 confirmed the collapse of apartheid and raised expectations of a new democratic state in its place. Although specific circumstances, such as massive internal resistance to apartheid and the impact of economic sanctions played a major part in de Klerk’s decision, these events were also connected to the end of the Cold War.


Learners could structure paragraphs around the following issues or ones similar:

The policy of Western governments towards South Africa:

• During the Cold War, Western governments gave support to South Africa as an important anti-communist state in the region and relied on SA opposition to Soviet influence in Southern Africa

• This changed when communist threat lessened at end of Cold War

• Western governments became more critical of South Africa (e.g. Thatcher in Britain Regan in USA)

Changing attitudes in South Africa:

• National Party’s fear of a communist-controlled ANC diminished with end of Cold War

• Collapse of the USSR removed important source of support for ANC; De Klerk believed ANC now weakened

The turning point:

• Tensions within the National Party

• F.W. de Klerk decided to embark on a policy of reform

• The release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of the ANC, PAC and SACP

Other factors:

• This not the only factor behind de Klerk’s actions

• Also internal resistance to apartheid, economic sanctions

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War fundamentally changed the situation in South Africa. De Klerk’s apartheid government could no longer rely on western support as an ally in the Cold

War. Moreover he believed that the ANC, SACP and PAC were weakened by the loss of Soviet support and would be more willing to give up the armed struggle and conciliate with the South African state. Although this calculation proved wrong, it was a critical, although not the only, factor in explaining his actions in 1990.


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