Could the private sector play a role in arresting democratic backsliding? What South Africa teaches us

Published: Fall 2023    |    By: Antoinette Handley|   Volume 71, No. 4


How, if at all, might business play a role in arresting a process of democratic backsliding?

The good news is that, given the right circumstances, business can be a surprisingly progressive political actor, on occasion even being willing to go up against a
hostile state to pursue a long-term set of social and political objectives. This flies in the face of widely held beliefs about business as always and only focused on short-term profits and elite interests, narrowly defined.

The bad news is twofold: First, that a business will only act in defence of democracy if it is the right kind of firm and finds itself in the right circumstances. The necessary criteria here are circumscribed and may be growing increasingly rare. Second, even where it does take a pro-democratic position, a firm or business community will be acting, not in the interests of democracy per se, but in service of securing the grounds for business writ large to flourish. Put differently, business’ political agenda may overlap but not neatly coincide with the agenda of democratic activists


About the Author

Antoinette Handley is Professor in the Department of Political Science and Vice-Dean, Graduate in the Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on business in Africa, economic elites more generally, and the political economy of development. She has been awarded Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships and was the World Politics Fellow at Princeton University in 2016-17. Handley is the author of Business and the State in Africa (Cambridge, 2008) and Business and Social Crisis in Africa (Cambridge, 2020).