Shaping democratic processes in Africa

Kirsty Scott

17 July 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

My PhD was probably some of the best years of my life. I managed to travel to three countries, do the kind of research that I’d always hoped to do, and really set my career off on this very productive path, determining my niche and carving out a space for myself within that research agenda.

Dr Nicole Beardsworth

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 promotes peaceful and inclusive societies and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions and governance. The UN defines democratic governance as a set of values and principles that ensure greater participation and equality in society and where people have a say in decision making and can hold decision makers to account.

Elections are a core element of democracy because they give people a say over who governs them and what decisions are prioritised under leadership. It is critical that elections are free, fair, credible, and peaceful to ensure that democracy is upheld.

Understanding the role of political parties in democratic governance and the lessons from electoral history are central to strengthening democracy and enabling all stakeholders including political parties, donor groups, and voters to engage in peaceful electoral processes.

Commonwealth Alumnus Dr Nicole Beardsworth is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Witwatersrand and an honorary research fellow in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. Her research is on the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on political parties, governance, democratisation, and elections in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Exploring political landscapes in Africa

Nicole’s research investigated opposition parties and electoral coordination in Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It aimed to address the gap in research on Africa’s political and electoral landscape within South African academia.

To date there has been little empirical research conducted on the political picture in Africa by South African researchers owing to limited funding opportunities for extensive fieldwork. As such, research and teaching in South Africa are often based on outdated assumptions and theoretical work rather than empirical evidence. After conducting doctoral fieldwork in Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for her Commonwealth Scholarship, Nicole was able to present an accurate and relatable picture of politics in these countries, challenging negative preconceptions and increasing understanding in South Africa.

“[D]uring the scholarship, I was extremely fortunate to be able to do fulltime PhD studies, which is not something I would have been able to do otherwise. And it’s not something that many South African PhD students are able to do. But besides that, I was able to spend significant amounts of time in three different countries getting to know their politics and to understand the democratic environment and electoral dynamics.”

As a lecturer, Nicole draws on her research to show how politics functions in other African countries and their similarities to politics in South Africa.

While her area of research remains underexplored in South Africa, she continues to advance her work and highlight its relevance to democracy across the continent. Since completing her scholarship, Nicole’s research has shifted to examining the dynamics between the urban poor living in informal circumstances and the ruling and opposition parties.

The Zambia Elections Research Network

Plastic box with word 'Vote' on outsideIn 2019, Nicole received grants from the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick and the British Institute in Eastern Africa to study the 2021 Zambian elections.

These elections were the seventh general election in Zambia since the re-introduction of multi-party politics in 1991. While in previous elections the pre-election period had previously been characterised by tensions, in 2021 the Coalition for Peaceful Elections in Zambia (CPEZ) launched an initiative encouraging political party leaders and candidates to commit to a peaceful, non-violent, and credible electoral process.

Working with colleagues from Warwick, the University of Cape Town, and the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR), Nicole established the Zambia Elections Research Network (ZERN). The ZERN initiative brought together local and international researchers to coordinate and fund a common research agenda on the elections and provide a comprehensive overview of the electoral process. Drawing on the expertise of researchers in Zambia as well as external scholars enabled the initiative to engage fully with the different aspects of the electoral process and strengthen collaborative research links.

“Academics tend to work in isolation as little islands, often there’s a lot of duplicated effort and inefficiencies built into that system. So, our thinking was that if we could create this network, we could have a longer, broader engagement, we could spread ourselves more equally and more evenly, and do a better job covering the elections.”

The network led to collaborations with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the creation of a set of 9 policy briefs on the electoral process as well as consultations with donors involved in supporting the elections.

This led to further consulting for the Democracy and Governance donor group and working with ambassadors to coordinate their response to the election using data and anecdotal information gathered and analysed by the network.

ZERN also published a special issue on the 2021 elections with the Journal of Eastern African Studies, which Nicole hopes will have a meaningful impact on debates within African Studies and in the policy arena.

Despite working with different donor groups and supporting their briefings and responses to the election, the broader research agenda continued to be driven by the network and local Zambian scholars. This enabled the network to contribute vital information and insights to various stakeholder groups on the predicted outcomes of the election and its significance for promoting a peaceful democratic process in Zambia.

For Nicole, involvement in the network and working with key stakeholders afforded a unique opportunity to witness internal aspects of the electoral process.

The Zambia Elections Research Network has continued its research agenda and since the elections has shifted its focus to the current Zambian administration’s impact and looking ahead to the 2026 polls.

“It was an incredibly interesting internal insight for me into how politics happens in these big watershed moments.”

Supporting peaceful elections in Zimbabwe

In 2022, Nicole was invited by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to provide an analysis of the 2023 Zimbabwean elections. Following extensive on the party-political environment in Zimbabwe, Nicole was excited to be involved in the pre-election analysis and contribute to a peaceful election process.

Building on more than a decade’s work on and in the country, Nicole’s analysis helped to explain how stakeholders might productively influence democratisation in Zimbabwe.

Nicole now supervises two Zimbabwean PhD students and hopes that this will continue to positively shape Zimbabwe’s future.

Reflecting on the ZERN project and her work in Zimbabwe, Nicole is optimistic about the role that academics and researchers can play in engaging with policymakers on political processes.

“We see it as a major win really, both for democracy and for policy engagement between academics and donors or policymakers…. There are places we can go that they can’t. There are questions we can ask that they can’t.”

Research specialists are essential for navigating sensitive political environments and providing the historical context on political parties which can be overlooked or forgotten between election cycles.

Research with impact

Looking back over her career following her PhD, Nicole concedes that she did not intend to become an academic but had aspired to work at a think tank. However, as her research advanced, she realised the unique possibilities of academia which allow her to undertake specialist research that delivers real-world outcomes.

In her role at the University of Witwatersrand, Nicole is eager to continue research and teaching that strengthens understanding of politics across the region. At the same time, she hopes to pursue further policy work with governments to help foster democratic values and institutions in Africa.

“I really do think that the Commonwealth Scholarship and the opportunities that I had during the Commonwealth Scholarship were really fundamental to setting me on this path.”

Nicole Beardsworth is a 2013 Commonwealth Scholar from South Africa. She completed a PhD in Politics and International Relations at the University of Warwick.