Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission: Practical Steps Towards Home Rule in South Africa

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FMF Special Paper


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa is per definition a federal one. It entrenches original authority for all three spheres of government – central, provincial, and municipal – whereas in a unitary state the scope of provincial or municipal government would be left entirely to the discretion of the central government.

Nonetheless, given the ideological convictions of the political party that has controlled South Africa’s central government since the Constitution’s adoption, the country’s political scene has been one of centralisation. South Africa is a federation without federalism.

The collapse of the central government and the immense harm it has done to the economy and to society however necessitates widespread decentralisation – or, stated positively, Home Rule – to be brought about. This will in all likelihood not occur as a result of devolution (a concession by the central government) but must increasingly occur as a result of unilateral action on the part not only of provinces and municipalities, but also of organised communities and businesses.

This paper explains in detail how South Africa’s constitutional federation provides scope for benign and pro-decentralisation governments and communities to start ‘getting things done.’ This is not a riskless or easy exercise, but a necessary one.


Martin van Staden

Head of Policy


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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