The new guardians of democracy

Research by Professor Ursula van Beek and her peers culminated in a unit that looks at democracy globally. (Photo: David Harrison)

Research by Professor Ursula van Beek and her peers culminated in a unit that looks at democracy globally. (Photo: David Harrison)

Professor Ursula van Beek, who cut her teeth as a researcher on South Africa’s fledgling democracy, is heading up Stellenbosch University’s new unit that will study and measure democracy around the world. 

Although democracy is entrenched legally in South Africa, with the Constitution seen as the highest authority in the land, a Constitution alone cannot protect this country’s democracy, now 21 years old, as history shows. 

Van Beek said she was concerned by the violence of the recent xenophobic attacks and the defacing of monuments featuring historic figures with links to South Africa’s past. This happened despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was hailed “around the world as an exemplary way in which to deal with a painful past”, she said. 

“Xenophobia is a very ugly sentiment and it’s an indication of rising intolerance levels among people and diminishing trust or hope that their (economic or social) situation will improve,” said Van Beek.

A protest in favour of transformation at the University of Cape Town led to the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes and prompted the vandalisation of other statues, from Queen Victoria to Mahatma Gandhi. 

“The destruction of statues by the young people of the country indicates a lack of hope for the future and this is particularly concerning because it’s these young people who are going to be taking over the country in the future,” she said.

The new Transformation Research Unit: Democracy Globally was launched in April at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for International and Comparative Politics to monitor and evaluate democracy and makes use of a new research model pioneered by Van Beek and her peers. 

The unit is the formalisation of a group made up, for many years, of political scientists, economists, sociologists, historians and academics from around the world who shared a common interest in the study of democracy. 

The research, which makes use of new techniques, looks at a variety of countries and touches on their political, civil and socioeconomic factors, among others, all rights jealously guarded by the South African Constitution. 

The countries reviewed are: South Africa, Poland, Germany, South Korea, Chile, Turkey and Sweden. 

The first five were specifically selected in 2000 because they were classified as “a leading example of democratisation in their respective regions”. 

Van Beek, who made South Africa her home in 1990 when she moved here from Zambia where her husband had been working on a mine, delivered her first research project in 1995 — a year after South Africa’s first democratic elections. 

It compared the political transitions of her country of birth, Poland, and South Africa. 

“They arrived at democracy from two extreme pole positions. One departed from a communist regime where egalitarian values were thoroughly assimilated by a vast majority of the population; the other emerged from the apartheid regime that generated intolerable inequalities. Yet the issue of attaining equality is as important in one society as it is in the other,” she said. 

The research by Van Beek and the international research group discovered, perhaps controversially from a human rights perspective, that some authoritarian governments were better at providing access to some of the rights enshrined in the Constitution during an economic downturn, including housing and education, than were more democratic governments. 

“As an authoritarian regime they are more able to make instant  decisions to turn around the economy and make use of resources at their disposal to assist citizens. Democracies are slower to react,” she said.

“I am not suggesting, however, that we should forgo democracy because there are also some terrible authoritarian governments.” 

Van Beek has received awards for her work from the Human Sciences Research Council, the Daimler Chrysler Foundation in Germany and the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation in Stockholm. 

Van Beek said she wants the new unit to bring young people on board. “We [the founders] want the next generation to take forward the research, so that it can continue once we are gone, and new ideas can be introduced,” she said.