IJR hosts international conference on populism and social cohesion in Southern Africa

By Published On: 4th July 2022

Over two days in May, the IJR hosted an international conference, in partnership with  Leipzig University and the Research Institute of Social Cohesion (RISC), – an alliance of eleven university institutes across Germany, on “Populism(s) and social cohesion in Southern Africa: A regional challenge, a global challenge?’’

The conference was opened by the IJR’s Executive Director, Prof Cheryl Hendricks, who challenged participants to explore the comparative experience of populism within the region.

Colleagues and partners from Leipzig University introduced their work in RISC and how the study of populism has only recently developed in Germany. They suggested that the study of social cohesion and populism in Southern Africa has much to offer other regions about how these issues develop.

The first panel brought together speakers from academia and labour organisations to discuss the dynamics of populism in South Africa. The speakers agreed that the growing threat of populism is a consequence of a broader crisis in South African democracy, where economic opportunities are severely limited among an increasingly younger population and the political parties are perceived to be untrustworthy. However, the discussants cautioned that populism, in and of itself, should not necessarily be perceived as a negative phenomenon. At present, populist politics has tended to represent chauvinistic ideals, creating in- and out- groups among communities.

The panels which followed on the first day explored the threat of populism in Zimbabwe and in Namibia, respectively.

Although there are important differences between these two cases, the speakers and participants noted the similarities between Southern African countries, where liberation movements with a history of armed struggle become dominant parties in new democracies. A strong sense of nationalism, combining displays of militarism with patriarchal posturing, pervades the development of populist action in Southern Africa.

The second day of the conference explored the learning processes across the region and shifted the focus of discussion toward the relevance of social cohesion.

The first panel emphasised the “weak points” in societies across the region, where young people with limited opportunities for economic advancement and political representation are susceptible to populist mobilisation. The second panel discussed the difficulty of advancing a project of social cohesion, primarily in South Africa, in conditions where political leaders are focused on protecting their status while socio- economic conditions for the majority are increasingly difficult.

This conference is envisioned as part of a longer-term project among the IJR and its partner organisations in monitoring, researching and challenging populist politics in the Southern African region, as part of its overall goal of promoting fair, democratic, inclusive and peaceful societies.

Mikhail Moosa, Project Leader: South African Reconciliation Barometer

Share this article

Follow us
Latest articles

Become a friend

Apply to engage and make a differnce