What do South African parties think about federalism?

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 22 May 2024

South Africa needs federalism. Provinces, municipalities, and local governments are far better equipped than the national government to combat the many crises affecting South Africans today. And are far more likely to understand what it is that their constituents need on the ground.

It should no longer be up for debate that federalism, home rule and decentralisation would benefit this country greatly. Decentralisation is built into the spirit of our Constitution. It has demonstrated its efficacy already in the limited powers that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has in the Western Cape.

So, what do the political parties running in the 2024 National Elections have to say about federalism?

Before asking that question, it is important to distinguish between true federalism and devolution. Federalism is a system whereby local governments, notably provinces, govern their areas autonomously. They run their local governments, make their own decisions and even have a say over their own legislation. They govern by the will of their local area and have the mandate of their voters.

Devolution, on the other hand, is the idea that the national government is supreme and in charge, but that local government can ask for permission to take over responsibility for certain functions.

Devolution is inappropriate for South Africa’s needs. We need provinces and local governments to govern their own affairs, so they can be freed from the corruption and incompetence endemic in the central government.

While most parties don’t mention federalism, or even decentralisation or devolution, in their manifestos, we can deduce their policy on federalism from their other policies, rhetoric and alliances.

Who hates federalism?

African National Congress (ANC): Wants total control

The ANC has blatantly condemned federalism, ignorantly likening it to Apartheid, while deceptively insisting that South Africa is a unitary state with a centralised government. We have seen the results of ANC centralised rule, and this should indicate fully how foolish the ANC’s position actually is.

The ANC wants to retain ultimate control over South Africa, and will not ever support a federal dispensation – unless it has a full change of heart and starts caring about the state of the country.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF): Follows socialist centralisation

The EFF is cut from a similar cloth to the ANC and is steeped in socialist and Marxist-Leninist ideology. EFF members want South Africa to imitate the Soviet Union and embrace absolute centralised control. I wouldn’t be surprised if the party abolished local governments altogether if it came to power.

The EFF uses the term “decentralise” a few times in its manifesto, but often in reference to breaking up big business, or devolving petty powers to a few localised government agencies. Nothing substantive.

Rest assured that the EFF will embrace a centralised national government, with very little power and freedom being granted to local governments. Or individuals, for that matter.

ANC proxy parties: Will vote alongside their master

Parties that historically vote alongside the ANC, and have worked closely with the ANC recently in coalitions in Gauteng, and in efforts to unseat the DA, oppose federalism by virtue of their association with the ANC.

This include parties like Al Jama-ah, which helped topple the DA’s coalition in Johannesburg last year. The Patriotic Alliance (PA) should also not be trusted, as it has a track record of selling its support to the highest bidder. It may end up throwing its support behind the ANC if it is offered enough money.

Rise Mzansi: Opposes police decentralisation

Rise Mzansi opposed the DA’s call for police devolution and decentralisation, but has expressed support for devolving public transport authority to the provinces. Police decentralisation is incredibly important, and if South Africa had already embraced it back in the 90s, we wouldn’t have the crime levels that we have now. For this reason, Rise Mzansi should be considered anti-federalism.

Who supports federalism?

Democratic Alliance (DA): Fundamental principle

Federalism is a fundamental principle of the DA’s ideology. As the leader of the Western Cape, the DA has shown what a semi-autonomous province can achieve. Imagine what it could accomplish without interference from the central government?

The DA, if it came to national power, would definitely back federalism. But the DA should be doing more to support federalism. Rather than just paying lip-service to it, the DA should be moving ahead to embracing federalism in practice, ignoring dictates from the ANC and implementing decentralisation on a local level, with or without the blessing of the central government.

Freedom Front Plus (VF+): Supports independence in any form

The VF+ supports self-determination, autonomy, decentralisation and independence in almost any form, not exclusively supporting only one kind. It has supported calls for Cape independence, expresses support for federalism in its manifesto, and is also pro-devolution. Any progress towards increased local power is positive in their eyes.

Referendum Party (RP): Federalism as a stepping stone to independence

The RP is a pro-Cape independence party, so would rather not be contained within a federal South Africa. But federalism can be seen as a stepping-stone towards independence, and may even make independence irrelevant. The RP has also claimed that it will vote alongside the DA. So, the RP is functionally pro-federalism.

Other parties: Limited support for decentralisation

ActionSA (ASA) has expressed support for decentralising service delivery and the police. While it does not blatantly express support for federalism, ASA does support decentralisation. While a vote for the DA or VF+ would be a stronger vote for federalism, ASA’s support for some aspects of federalism can be acknowledged.

Build One South Africa (BOSA) has already expressed support for decentralising the police, but has centred their manifesto more around creating jobs.

Who to vote for?

Vote for a party that supports federalism. The more blatant its support for federalism, the better. The more it has demonstrated a practical support for local autonomy, the more you should support it.

Federalism will fix the fundamental problems with South African society, and the sooner we achieve a federal dispensation, the better.


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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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