A book edited and co-authored by Prof Ursula van Beek, the founder and Director of Transformation Research Unit (TRU) at the Political Science Department at Stellenbosch University, will now be made available to nine public universities in South Africa thanks to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).
“By their generous donation KAS helps us to convey to a wider body of students and staff the necessity to combine theoretical and empirical approaches when dealing with complex political, social and economic issues. The book reports on a project based on comparative methodology, where in-depth cases studies refer to empirical findings thus illustrating the vital importance of building theory in reference to data, and vice versa," said Van Beek.
Democracy under Threat: A Crisis of Legitimacy? is the latest addition to a series of four books on democracy produced by TRU. TRU focuses on examining South African democracy comparatively in the regional southern African and global contexts from a political, economic and social perspective.
According to Ms Christina Teichmann, Project Manager at KAS' office in Cape Town, the aim of this donation is to continue KAS' work to “promote democracy, good governance and the rule of law through political education and training not only in Germany but worldwide".
“This book makes an important contribution in this regard by providing valuable insights into the current state and quality of democracy in various countries around the globe. By donating this book to universities in South Africa, KAS hopes to assist in making the important research findings of Prof van Beek and the other contributing authors better accessible to students and university staff."
KAS was established after the Second World War and the end of Nazi rule in Germany to provide the country's population with a better understanding of democracy, their role as active citizens as well as their rights and responsibilities.
“It was decided that this kind of education should be done by political foundations, each of them affiliated to a different political party thus providing a broad spectrum of political views," explains Teichmann.
“Our Foundation was named after Konrad Adenauer, who was the first democratically elected Chancellor of post-war Germany. Besides providing political education and training in Germany, KAS started its international work in the 1960s and today has over 100 offices and runs more than 200 programmes worldwide. We have worked in South Africa since the 1980s and provide a platform for informed debate on topical political as well as socio-economic issues by hosting seminars, workshops, conferences and roundtables for selected target groups while working with local partners, such as political parties, universities, think tanks, business, the media and civil society. "
As before the Second World War, democracy across the world is again under threat today.
In South Africa, the latest Afrobarometer Survey indicates that while the “majority of South Africans still prefer democracy to any other form of governance" a growing number of individuals are willing to “trade off democracy for an authoritarian regime if the latter can provide jobs, housing and better education".
“Many South Africans feel that democracy has not delivered because their lives have not significantly changed for the better since the end of Apartheid. Additionally, state capture and corruption on the highest political level have eroded peoples' trust in government institutions and democratic processes. This has led to a widespread receptiveness to radical and non-democratic messages, often voiced with strong racial undertones," said Teichmann.
However, it is not only South Africa experiencing a decline in support for democracy as a governing system.
According to Van Beek “many of the problems – whether connected to globalisation or not – that South Africa faces today are not unique to our country but also affect other younger democracies around the world, and even those that are well established". The United States under President Donald Trump's rule is just one such example.
“In other words, we are not alone grappling with problems but as members of a global community we can – and should - learn from each other's failures and successes. Our book serves as a warning by throwing light on how unscrupulous charismatic leaders exploit their own people with promises of a better life for all, when in fact all they seek is to gain power and hold on to it. The method is invariably based on creating or deepening divisions between “us" and “them", where the others are differentiated from “us" by race, ethnicity, religion, or a class status and are portrayed as being responsible for all our troubles," said Van Beek.
Teichmann hopes that by sharing the book with staff and students at South Africa's public higher education institutions, academic readers will gain a “better understanding of the multiple threats democracies, whether young or old, are experiencing at present."
“We are witnessing a rise of charismatic leaders and populist right wing parties that promise to provide easy answers to complex questions and focus solely on national interests. The book bears clear testimony to the fact that irrespective of its level of maturity democracy cannot be taken for granted but that citizens have to actively protect and safeguard it against elements that aim to undermine it," added Teichmann.