​In light of the growing number of challenges facing democracy in various parts of the world in recent years, Stellenbosch University (SU) recently established the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO), which is housed in the Department of Political Science.

CREDO emerged from the work of the Department’s former Transformation Research Unit (TRU). “We used to focus almost exclusively on democracy research, which resulted in a globally acknowledged record of comparative study on democracy across all cultural regions,” explains former TRU director Prof Ursula van Beek, who is now at the helm of CREDO. “Our ambition is to build on this legacy, continue our high-quality research, while building a national centre for the study of the major challenges facing democracy in South Africa, the region and the rest of the world.”

Not wasting time

CREDO started operating in December 2021 only, and its structures are still being put in place. Yet the fledgling centre is off to a good start, having already collaborated internationally. Earlier this year it co-hosted an online discussion along with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Istanbul’s Centre for Local Authorities and Local Actors (CIFAL) to mark the World Day of Social Justice.

“The aim was to discuss challenges to social justice in the post-pandemic world, as well as potential strategies that might help us overcome them,” says Van Beek. “More specifically, questions were raised on how to empower social institutions to contribute to personal and social development, and how to encourage participation for ‘all’ to make their voices heard at government level.”

Other CREDO webinars will focus more specifically on democracy and, in particular, the challenges it encounters in various countries. Issues to be tackled include political and social polarisation, inequality, corruption and climate change. “The objective is to interrogate the roots of these factors, as well as their effect on citizens’ political culture and behaviour, which, in turn, determines the stability or weakness of democracy and its institutions,” says Van Beek.

CREDO’s first research project is already under way, focusing on rising societal and political polarisation in a number of countries as well as in the broader international arena. The project will culminate in a collection of articles to be published in a special issue of the Taiwan Journal of Democracy in July.

Close-knit team 

A major benefit is that team members who were previously involved in TRU will continue to play a role in CREDO. “Most of our team members have been together for over 20 years,” says Van Beek. “We started off as an informal group of researchers interested in studying democracy around the world.”

These include researchers from a number of prestigious institutions such as Oxford University, Berlin’s Social Science Centre, Bahçeşehir University in Turkey, and Sam Houston State University in the United States. “Our team is cross-disciplinary, so although we primarily have political scientists, we also have historians, economists and sociologists,” she says.

According to Van Beek, CREDO aspires to become an agendasetter by exploring problems confronting democracy as they arise and contributing to the existing body of theoretical knowledge in the process. To this end, they combine qualitative and quantitative research methods.

“The qualitative approach helps us understand the history and culture of a given society, which can explain the society’s institutional organisation and the values and motivations of its people. The quantitative method, in turn, investigates political and social phenomena by gathering new or using existing data, and then performing statistical and computational analyses of the data to help us uncover patterns.”

In this way, the Centre hopes to position itself as a thought leader in the global south, offering unparalleled expertise in the field of democracy to both the academic community and the broader public.

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