Karl von Holdt is a professor at the Society Work and Politics Institute. His current research interests include popular politics, movements, violence, the political economy of corruption, geopolitics and social theory. His most recent publications include a reflection on his unlikely engagement with the work of Pierre Bourdieu (‘Arguing with Bourdieu: a South African encounter’, in Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale, No 126) and an edited volume – co-edited with Andries Bezuidenhout and Sonwabile Mnwana – Critically engaging public sociology: a perspective from the Global South (Bristol University Press), which sets out to chart the diverging trajectories of two concepts, ‘critically engaged sociology’ and ‘public sociology’ from their origins in the vibrant sociology of South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. The volume constitutes a deep historical reflection on the research practices of SWOP over a 40 year period, framed by the decades long conversation between Michael Burawoy and three generations of SWOP researchers.

Karl was Director of SWOP (2011-2018), and before that a Senior Researcher also at SWOP (2007-2010). Prior to this he was a Senior Researcher at Naledi, the COSATU-linked research Institute, where he coordinated the September Commission on the Future of the Trade Unions, which was established by COSATU in 1996 to reflect on the potential role of labour in the newly emergent democratic South Africa. At Naledi he also worked on issues of workplace transformation, with a particular focus on the transformation of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Karl started off working life establishing an adult literacy organisation in Cape Town, working with trade unions and community organisations and, after moving to Johannesburg and completing his Honours degree, serving as editor of the South African Labour Bulletin, after which he returned to university to work on his PhD.

Publications include Conversations with Bourdieu: the Johannesburg moment (Michael Burawoy and Karl Von Holdt) which was shortlisted for the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize, Transition from Below: Forging Trade Unionism and workplace change in South Africa, Beyond the apartheid workplace: studies intransition (edited with Eddie Webster) and Rising Powers, People rising: neoliberalisation and its discontents in the Brics countries (edited with Alf Nilsen), as well as journal articles and book chapters. The CSVR/SWOP research report, The Smoke that Calls: Insurgent Citizenship, Collective Violence and the Struggle for a Place in the New South Africa (Karl Von Holdt et al) has had a particularly wide impact. In 2012 Karl was invited to deliver the annual AJ Orenstein Memorial Lecture. He served as a director on the Board of the South African Post Office (1997-2003) and a member of the first National Planning Commission (2010-2015).

Current Projects

Violent States, States of Violence


Nilsen, Alf, and Karl von Holdt. 2018. “Rising Powers, People Rising: Neo-Liberalization and Its Discontents in the BRICS Countries.” Globalizations 16(2):212–136.
Von Holdt, Karl. 2001. “Elite Formation, Factions and Violence in the Political Economy of Corruption.” in State Capture in South Africa: How and why it happened. Johannesburg: University Press.
von Holdt, Karl. 2019. “Why Corruption Will Continue To Thrive Under Ramaphosa.” The Citizen.
von Holdt, Karl. 2019. “Politics, Economy and Business: Unpacking Corruption in SA.” Daily Voice.