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

Heidi Brooks (University of Johannesburg), Hlengiwe Ndlovu (Nelson Mandela University), Trevor Ngwane (University of Johannesburg), Carin Runciman (University of Johannesburg)

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, our article examines understandings of democracy by ordinary people in post-apartheid South Africa. It examines the understanding of democracy in South Africa’s most dominant vernacular languages, and analyses how democracy is practiced by citizens mobilised in community protests, to demonstrate how it is conceptualised. We argue 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 the post-1994 state. The paper draws upon four separate sets of interview data to explore meanings of democracy ‘from below’. Its analysis highlights the interpretations found in indigenous languages of democracy as a theory and practice. By rooting the analysis of democracy within local histories, practices and contexts, the paper 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.