Original Research - Special Collection: Public Theology

Populism versus constitutionalism in South Africa: Engaging public theology through dialogue

Kelebogile T. Resane
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 56, No 1 | a2830 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v56i1.2830 | © 2022 Kelebogile T. Resane | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 15 January 2022 | Published: 28 July 2022

About the author(s)

Kelebogile T. Resane, Department of Historical and Constructive Theology, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa


South African politics has taken a different turn since the dawn of the democratic era in 1994. After 28 years of democracy, there has been some populists’ and constitutionalists’ tension in democratic South Africa. The Mandela and Mbeki presidencies are marked for constitutionalism, while the Zuma tenure of nine years is marked as the era of populism. The constitutional republic already experiences the tension between the politics of the populists and of the constitutionalists. This article aims to identify and analyse the concepts of populism and constitutionalism and invites public theology to dialogue with these political ideologies in order to bring harmonious coexistence in democratic South Africa. Through the literature study and latest press release statements, incidents and concepts were discovered to give definitions and the analyses of populism, constitutionalism, and public theology. Public theology is chosen against political theology, due to the emphasis of dialogue as a manner of making theological statements. It is realised that populists are full of charisma, and they use this to charm the masses, offering them promises of prosperity and peace, while in fact they regard themselves as the masses, as they are the sole representatives of the people. They carry the agenda of entitlement. On the other hand, the research finds that constitutionalists apply rationality to constitutional dictates in order to govern for democratic stability in society. They would like to see the state where the rule of law guarantees citizens’ safety and security and economic prosperity. By reading this article one finds that this research emphasises that public theology through its dialogical nature, prophetic calling, anthropological centricity, engaging methodology, is inherently missional in the politically chaotic world. As a discipline, public theology is intradisciplinary, therefore engages other theological fields, including natural and social disciplines in order to reinforce its missional character. The conclusion is that public theology should be at the forefront, inviting politicians from different spectrums and convictions to the table of dialogue. Dialogue paves the way towards understanding, synergy, and trust. Theo-political interactions are crucial towards justice formation, which builds societal harmony and peaceful coexistence. Political tensions in South Africa offer public theology a golden opportunity to assert itself in civil affairs, and makes its voice audible in the marketplace.

Contribution: The interdisciplinary approach in this article contributes towards the importance of a relationship between the political studies and theology. Legal studies, history, and current affairs enrich the theological role in public affairs. Populism and constitutionalism are political ideologies in tension, and public theology through dialogue, contributes towards peaceful life in a democratic state.


populism; populists; constitutionalists; constitution; constitutionalism; democracy; public theology; dialogue


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