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

Heidi Brooks, Trevor Ngwane, Carin Runciman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


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
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020


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

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Decolonising and re-theorising the meaning of democracy: A South African perspective'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this