Safeguarding Democracy: Contests of Values and Interests - Case Studies of South Africa and Switzerland

This project seeks to understand the role that contests of values and interests play in shaping and challenging democracy in Switzerland and South Africa. More specifically, we ask how commitment to certain values, for example, human rights and dignity, has fostered the emergence and formulation of social interests that through debate and action in the public sphere help sustain democracy in these two countries.

Our key hypothesis, derived from the findings of a first phase of the Safeguarding Democracy project, Contests of Memory and Heritage (2009-2012) consists in the idea that the more democracy is mediated by an awareness of values and rights, the more likely it is that citizenship will be enhanced and with it democracy safeguarded. Indeed, it is through the prism of values and rights that individuals and groups stand up against powerful interests that potentially undermine their wellbeing. The suffering and misery produced by such inequalities and injustices may foster resignation and disengagement, but may also encourage political and social action. The outcome of such struggles is uncertain, and may safeguard or undermine democracy.

For this reason we intend to explore the implications of this hypothesis by looking into how democratic norms, including international norms, as carriers of values and rights, shape political action and the relationship of state and society. The empirical research focuses on two major fields: ‘Social Movements, Migration and the Media’ and ‘Gender Relations and Gender Violence’.

This collaboration involves researchers from the Centre for African Studies at Basel University, the Interdisciplinary Institute for Gender Studies and the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights – Gender Politics Cluster at Berne University and the History Workshop and National Research Foundation Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The research is funded by the Swiss-South Africa Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP).


Elísio Macamo (2015), Global modernity, social criticism and the local intelligibility of contestation in Mozambique, in Bringel Breno (ed.), Global Modernity and Social Contestation, Sage, London, 121-136.

Elísio Macamo (2016), Violence and political culture in Mozambique, in Social Dynamics – A Journal of African Studies, 42(1), 85-105.

Maaret Jokela (accepted), Spatialities and collective identity in women’s human rights struggles in Honduras, in Gender, Place and Culture .

Prince Asamoah, Daniela Zimmermann (2015), Xenophobie in Südafrika. Ausländer als Sündenböcke, in Afrika-Bulletin, 159, 8-9.


Prof Dr Brigitte Schnegg (16.09.1953 – 29.03.2014)

It is with great sadness that we share news of the untimely and sudden death of our colleague, Brigitte Schnegg, co-leader of the research project Safeguarding Democracy. Read more

Swiss South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP)

01.04.2014 to 31.03.2018

Prof Elísio Macamo (Centre for African Studies Basel), Prof. Doris Wastl-Walter (Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Geschlechterforschung/Geographisches Institut, University of Bern), Prof Sheila Meintjes 
(University of the Witwatersrand), Prof Noor Nieftagodien 
(University of the Witwatersrand)

Prof Phil Bonner, Prof Cynthia Kros, 
Prof Sekibakiba Lekgoathi,
 Dr Ursula Scheidegger

Administrative Support:
Pascal Schmid (Centre for African Studies Basel)

SNSF research database