The University of Wisconsin Press

African Studies / Politics / Human Rights

The Politics of Necessity
Community Organizing and Democracy in South Africa
Elke Zuern

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus, Series Editors

· Honorable Mention, Herskovits Award, African Studies Association

The Politics of Necessity is timely, readable, and accessible, and important politically, empirically, and theoretically. It displays the indifference of some fledgling democracies to the needs of the poor, exposes the impoverishment of definitions of democracy that overlook this pattern, and shows the costs of these silences.”
—Michael MacDonald, Williams College

The end of apartheid in South Africa broke down political barriers, extending to all races the formal rights of citizenship, including the right to participate in free elections and parliamentary democracy. But South Africa remains one of the most economically polarized nations in the world. In The Politics of Necessity Elke Zuern forcefully argues that working toward greater socioeconomic equality—access to food, housing, land, jobs—is crucial to achieving a successful and sustainable democracy.

Drawing on interviews with local residents and activists in South Africa’s impoverished townships during more than a decade of dramatic political change, Zuern tracks the development of community organizing and reveals the shifting challenges faced by poor citizens. Under apartheid, township residents began organizing to press the government to address the basic material necessities of the poor and expanded their demands to include full civil and political rights. While the movement succeeded in gaining formal political rights, democratization led to a new government that instituted neoliberal economic reforms and sought to minimize protest. In discouraging dissent and failing to reduce economic inequality, South Africa’s new democracy has continued to disempower the poor.

By comparing movements in South Africa to those in other African and Latin American states, this book identifies profound challenges to democratization. Zuern asserts the fundamental indivisibility of all human rights, showing how protest movements that call attention to socioeconomic demands, though often labeled a threat to democracy, offer significant opportunities for modern democracies to evolve into systems of rule that empower all citizens.

“This compelling and readable work is both thoughtful and thought provoking. The narrative is clear, well organized and well argued. . . .It is eminently suitable to advanced undergraduate and graduate-level courses on contemporary South Africa as well as to those concerning issues of democratization and human rights. Clearly, it is an important contribution to our understanding of the meaning of democracy in today’s world.”—Richard W. Hull, The International Journal of African Historical Studies Volume 44, Number 2 (2011) 

Elke Zuern is an associate professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

The Politics of Necessity cover

February 2011

LC: 2010011579 DT
264 pp.     6 x 9   
7 b/w illus., 1 map

Book icon
Paper $29.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-25014-0
Shopping cart ADD TO CART

Copublished with University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

UWP edition not for sale in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.

“A must-read. Here is an explanation of why democratic South Africa emerged, how its elites forgot the very people who brought them to power, and how these poor citizens struggle to be heard."
—Adam Habib, University of Johannesburg, Kingsway Campus

Home | Books | Journals | Events | Textbooks | Authors | Related | Search | Order | Contact

If you have trouble accessing any page in this web site, contact our Web manager.

Updated April 27, 2013

© 2013 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System