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TRU to establish a democracy research node
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 15/06/2017

Over the past few years the state of democracy in South Africa has been increasingly threatened by large scale corruption, mismanagement of state funds and improper governance practices under President Jacob Zuma's leadership. This is evident from media reports and public commentary by a range of political analysts. Globally, democracy is also not faring well with rising populism undermining liberal values.

Tracking democracy since the heady days of its global spread in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Bloc in the 1990s, the Transformation Research Unit (TRU): Democracy Globally at Stellenbosch University (SU) has taken the lead with a number of other research organisations across the world to interrogate the reasons behind this apparent unravelling of democracy. The TRU, which is based in the Political Science Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, focuses on examining South African democracy comparatively in the regional southern African and global contexts from a political, economic and social perspective.

"The proposed data centre is not meant to become yet another data archive. What we envisage instead is the creation of an "Intelligent Node" to help us locate data needed for analyses and teaching in the general area of democracy research by searching the repositories of already existing international archive networks. This will allow us to contribute to the creation of new knowledge in the field of democracy studies, with a specific contextualisation for South Africa, and at the same time we will help integrate South African social research into global networks via the Research Data Alliance (RDA)," says Prof Ursula van Beek, the Head of TRU.

The RDA was launched in 2013 by the European Commission, the United States National Science Foundation and National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Australian Government's Department of Innovation. The RDA aims to build bridges to enable the global research community to openly share data across technologies, disciplines, and countries to address the grand challenges of society.

Since its inception, TRU has taken a mixed-method approach in its research by combining in-depth qualitative country studies with quantitative analyses. Its heavy reliance on empirical data over the years led TRU's local and international partners to the idea of establishing a data centre.

"During a recent TRU workshop the participants also discussed the growing need for postgraduate students to improve their research methodology skills in quantitative research, which is regarded as a 'rare skills' area in South Africa," explains Van Beek.

To this end, a concurrent training programme has been proposed to expand the pool of young African scholars.

"Postgraduate students will therefore also be instructed by international experts on the data selection process to support their research hypotheses, and they will learn where to look for this data and how to do the analyses by utilising our Intelligent Node."  

TRU also recently completed one of two comparative projects, which was focused on democracy in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

"I am happy to report that the findings of the all-African team will be published in a dedicated edition of the international journal of politics, the Taiwan Journal of Democracy, on 1 July 2017."

he second project that TRU is working on is nearing completion and focuses on democracy in South Africa from a global perspective. The research has established a decline in the legitimacy of democracies over the last 20 years in countries like Turkey, where the recent referendum has effectively killed democracy; Poland, where a populist government has come to power; and South Africa, where poor quality of governance has given rise to radicalism and polarisation that are threatening democracy."

"The discouraging findings," says van Beek, "convinced us that further research into the state of democracy in South Africa was imperative and that the investigation ought to be supported by solid empirical evidence. We want to focus on social cohesion, which we consider to be the bedrock of democracy.  We believe that the problem of social cohesion can no longer be meaningfully investigated in isolation from regional and global trends as the globalisation of capital and the mass flows of refugees and immigrants bring additional pressures on efforts directed at attaining social cohesion at the nation-state level. At the same time, one particular research methodology is not likely to add much new knowledge and practical advice on the subject. For these reasons we   decided to create the Intelligent Node and thus integrate into global networks."

PHOTO: A group of national and international academics recently participated in a workshop by the 
Transformation Research Unit (TRU): Democracy Globally at Stellenbosch University. From the left in the first row are Dr Catherine Musuva (AU: Electoral Commission), Dr Cindy Steenekamp (SU), Prof Ursula van Beek (SU), Dr Nicola de Jager (SU), PhD candidate, Annemie Parkin (SU), and Ms Jordan Fredericks (Honours student, SU). In the second row are Prof Dieter Fuchs (Stuttgart University, Germany), Prof Dirk Berg-Schlosser (Philipps University in Marburg, Germany), Dr Webster Zambara (Institute for Justice and Reconciliation), Prof Hans-Dieter Klingemann (Research Centre, Berlin), and Prof Ursula Hoffmann-Lange (Bamberg University, Germany). In the third row are Dr Krige Sieberts (SU), Prof Laurence Whitehead (Oxford University), Prof David Sebudubudu (University of Botswana), and Ms Helen Kores (MA student, SU).