Federalism is a fundamental principle of African governance and self-determination

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Mail & Guardian on 16 April 2024

Federalism is as African as Baobab trees and the Big Five. Even though some commentators critique the concept of federalism – by trying to tie it to those organisations or persons arguing for it – it does not make it any less sound of a system of governance or any less African.

Every human being has the natural right to chart their own destiny. This simply means everyone is naturally free to engage in any activity, as long as they allow others that same freedom. This right to chart one’s destiny is termed self-determination, which includes ‘rights’ like free association, free speech, and property.

Self-determination is inherent in the system of governance found in South Africa currently, as premised on the South African Constitution of 1996. Yet, this self-determination is seen in the various systems of governance that were found in Africa as a whole, or in Southern Africa specifically.

Using Nguni speaking communities or polities in Southern Africa as an example, the decentralisation of power among semi-autonomous lords/chiefs with the king acting as the supreme decision-maker is common knowledge. This is federalism in its most basic and true form, a series of semi-autonomous regions that are under the banner of one overarching authority.

One could argue that the federalism of the pre-colonial African polities stems from the organisation of the homesteads of Nguni language speakers; wherein the “home” included semi-autonomous houses/huts for the various wives in polygynous relationships. With the patriarch acting as the leader or representative of that homestead. This state organisation, the pre-colonial federacies, can be seen among SeSotho/Setswana language speakers and their polities too aside from Nguni ones.

Although some scholars may argue that there being a local chief subordinate to the king is a sign of centralisation in and of itself, the main point of governance that is just in terms of natural law is the ability to hold accountable those who govern you. Therefore, the local chief can be held accountable much better, even if they centralised the power for that locality in themselves, because of their proximity to whom those power is exercised against and on their behalf.

Africa in the modern day is actually a result of the forced centralisation of states or federations that were autonomous or semi-autonomous in their own right. The civil wars which are along ethnic or linguistic lines in Africa stem from a history of states that were or federations that were autonomous and different but were combined during conquest, for purposes that are beyond the scope of this piece.

This culture of decentralised power is seen in the consensus-based decision-making model in localities governed by chiefs even in modern-day South Africa, as evidenced in cases such as Baleni and Others v Minister of Mineral Resources and Others 2018.

The Baleni case highlights how according to the customs of the people of Xolobeni – who were the plaintiffs – a chief cannot unilaterally decide on what ought to happen to public land without consulting and getting consent from the various homesteads in the village/locality.

This shows the logic of accountability inherent in the African customary form of governance, inherent to federalism in principle, which sees power devolve to the local chief/executive and then from there, further being restricted by the consent of the various homesteads of the locality/village in major decisions like selling off public land.

South Africa in the modern day is already a federal state thanks to the Constitution giving the provinces exclusive power over abattoirs, liquor licenses, ambulance services, and provincial infrastructure like roads among other shared competencies with the national government.

This federal reality of our Constitution was tested by the Western Cape government when it released its Provincial Powers Bill. The Bill is an attempt to make reality and further the federal impulses and outright provisions in the South African constitution. Although it has been criticized by some, for those who love the prospect of individuals self-determining it is a step in the right direction.

Whether one agrees with the governing party of the Western Cape or not, we must acknowledge that the people of the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, or Limpopo have a natural right to chart their own destiny; they have the natural and constitutional right to self-determination.

African polities were largely federal given the powers held by the local chief subservient to the monarch, over his local territory. Therefore, the charge that a federated state is somehow injurious to Africans is divorced from the history of African people having organised their states along federal lines, prior to contact with Europeans. Federalism is as African as anything African people choose to do. The historical argument for it is merely extra evidence to support the primary point that everyone has the right to govern themselves firstly, and to be governed by people they choose in a manner they choose. Federalism seeks to make reality this fundamental principle of human existence. Opposing it is opposing the natural rights of self-determination which bring it about.


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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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