Decolonising and re-theorising the meaning of democracy: A South African perspective

Heidi Brooks*, Trevor Ngwane, Carin Runciman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Historically and today, social movements have often been at the forefront of envisioning the content of democracy. Although democracy itself is a contested concept, in general, definitions and measures of democracy are often drawn from the canon and experiences of the global North. Contributing to the growing decolonisation movement in the social sciences, this article examines understandings of democracy in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. It considers how ordinary people conceptualise democracy through an examination of its understanding in isiZulu, one of South Africa’s most dominant vernacular languages, and through analysing how democracy is understood and practised at the grassroots, by citizens mobilised in community protests. It is argued that popular understandings and expectations of democracy are rooted in traditions of popular organisation that emerged in the struggle against apartheid, and in the experiences of many citizens of the post-1994 state. Crucially, the article draws attention to the tensions between grassroots understandings and visions of democracy and that which has been articulated by the governing African National Congress (ANC). By rooting the analysis of democracy within local histories, practices and contexts, the article provides lessons for democratic theorists by illuminating how citizens and popular organisations articulate the current crisis of democracy and its possible alternatives, promoting a re-imagination of normative democratic thought based on ideas of democracy from below.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-32
Number of pages16
JournalSociological Review
Issue number1
Early online date23 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • isiZulu
  • decoloniality
  • democracy
  • democratic theory
  • protest
  • South Africa


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