Decolonising and Re-Theorising the Meaning of Democracy: A South African Perspective

Monday, 16 July 2018: 18:15
Oral Presentation
Heidi BROOKS, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
The post-2010 global protest wave has seen movements from diverse parts of the world challenge the failures of representative democracy. Both historically and today, movements have often been at the forefront of envisioning the content of democracy. ‘Democracy’ is, of course, a quintessentially contested concept and measures of democracy vary. In general, however, the theorisation of democracy is often drawn from the canon and experiences of the global North. Contributing to the growing decolonisation movement in the social sciences, this article seeks to unpack what democracy and, therefore, the crisis of democracy means in the South African context. The paper examines how ordinary people conceptualise democracy in 9 of the official languages of the country, excluding English and Afrikaans, as well as examining how democracy is practiced in both movement and community organisations. Through this, a grounded theorisation of democracy in the South African context emerges. It will be argued that the understanding of democracy is rooted both in a collective memory of pre-colonial history and the struggle against apartheid. Crucially, the paper will draw attention to the tensions between grassroots understandings and visions of democracy and that which has been articulated by the African National Congress (ANC) as both a liberation movement and governing party. By rooting the analysis of democracy within local histories, practices and contexts, the paper illuminates how movement and community activists articulate the current crisis of democracy and its possible alternative futures.