Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History

It is true that very early South Africans who passed for “liberals” did want a centralised government. In this they were eagerly supported by the conservatives of their time.

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centralisation of power

Other than the charge that liberalism is somehow a democratic theory, one of the most jarring criticisms from conservative quarters is that liberals prefer the centralisation of power over decentralisation. Often the implicit assumption underlying this assertion is that decentralisation (from government to communities) is instead a conservative phenomenon.

This is the third in a series of five articles addressing common conservative assaults on South African liberalism. The links for all articles in the series appear at the bottom of every article.

It is true that very early South Africans who passed for “liberals” did want a centralised government. The relative liberals of their time, John Xavier Merriman and Jan Smuts, two of the main movers of the idea of a united South Africa in the 1900s, opposed federalism and supported the centralisation of power because they believed (among other things) the latter would be less of a burden on the taxpayer. They also believed a unified “native policy” would be superior to allowing each province its own approach. In these ideas they were eagerly supported by the conservatives of their time.

Other than this hiccup, mid-to-late-to-current liberals, from the middle of the century to the transition out of Apartheid and afterwards, have been avowed federalists.

Indeed, South African liberals (of all races) have been the most consistent advocates of decentralisation in South Africa, with white conservatives having only relatively recently boarded the train. Only the small number of dissenting black South African conservatives, congregating around the Inkatha movement, have largely been ad idem with liberals about federalism.

The Progressive Party, founded in 1959, adopted federalism as a constitutional principle as early as 1960, when the first volume of the Molteno Report was published. Through the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party, and today in the Democratic Alliance, federalism had not been removed from their political platform at any point. Of course, much is left to be desired about the lengths to which these parties went (and go) to promote federalism.

In contradistinction, the National Party (and its predecessors in the South African Party) had rejected federalism vociferously since the unification of South Africa. The South African Party, which went on to become the United Party (UP) when it merged (and then de-merged) with the Nationalists, as the official opposition for most of the Apartheid era, opposed federalism all the way up to the 1960s, refusing to concede an inch to their stronghold in Natal, which had been the heartland of South African federalism. The UP then went on to embrace a “race federation” model which, upon closer inspection, was no federation at all. The idea never went anywhere and accompanied the UP in its slow electoral demise.

The Conservative Party (CP), which split away from the National Party in 1982, also rejected federalism in turn. The Conservatives understood federalism as conceding to the idea of a united South Africa and rejecting separate states for separate races – their ideal. They generally held onto the idea of a confederation or constellation of states in South Africa, including the “independent” black homelands and a (unitary) white South Africa.

A minority in the CP did seek an Afrikaner volkstaat (people’s state), but it is evident that most were establishment-minded politicians who wanted a united (white) South Africa, obviously under Afrikaner hegemony, with black satellite “states.”

The National Party (NP) at this stage – the late 1970s to 1980s – could see the writing on the wall about the looming end of its Apartheid policy and began making overtures to federalism and decentralisation. But even by the end of the 1980s, the NP was so dedicated to its own apparent expertise in governance that it rejected the KwaZulu Indaba – a gathering of liberals, black conservatives, and moderate anti-Apartheid types – which resolutely affirmed the superiority of federalism as a solution to South Africa’s woes. Instead, the NP felt its “regional services councils” were the answer, which deprived municipalities of much of their power. It was only in a short period between the beginning of the 1990s and the end of CODESA that the NP explicitly flirted with federalism. As James Hamill writes, however:

“[G]iven the NP’s own centralist history, its belated conversion to the cause of federalism may have done much to discredit and undermine that concept by rendering impossible a genuine debate over its merits – particularly the democratic case for avoiding an over-concentration of power at the centre – as it had been identified by the ANC as an instrument in a broader NP strategy to preserve existing racial privileges by obstructing the capacity of a majority-based government to implement a national redistributionist project.”

The CP, which at this time had various spinoff entities, like the Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People’s Front) and eventually the Freedom Front, also briefly held out a federal or quasi-federal arrangement as a solution.

The NP, during the negotiations to bring about the end of Apartheid, was however largely taking its instructions from African National Congress (ANC), which also rejected the KwaZulu Indaba proposals. Roelf Meyer, the NP’s chief negotiator, did not move a muscle without the permission of Cyril Ramaphosa. The NP and ANC were rightly considered at this time to have entered into a very tight coalition. And the ANC had no interest in federalism: They sought a unitary South Africa to socially-engineer. In this, committed liberals did not support them. The ANC quickly doused the NP’s transient hopes of a federal arrangement, and with it, the same, albeit committed, hopes of the liberals.

Decentralisation is a liberal idea intimately related to constitutionalism as a liberal idea. Liberals seek political and constitutional arrangements that disincentivise intrusions on liberty, and decentralisation – whether federal or confederal – is certainly one of those arrangements.

The conservative push for decentralisation in recent years is very welcome and to be embraced. Indeed, the conservatives are doing a better job of it than most liberals. But under no circumstances must the illusion be created that liberals were naïve idiots who sought centralisation of power whilst conservatives bravely fought for localism and decentralisation during the era of constitutional creativity. This is simply not the historical fact of the matter.

Article 1: Liberalism, Conservatism, and South Africa’s Failed Mass Democracy

Article 2: Liberal Universalism and the Western Export of Mass Democracy

Article 3: Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History

Article 4: Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? 

Article 5: How Both Liberals and Conservatives Failed South Africa [forthcoming]

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7 comments

  1. Helgard Muller Reply

    Again, it is difficult to know what to make of this article.

    (1) There is no liberal or even “classic liberal” commitment to federalism. Sorry…

    (a) You either don’t understand liberalism and its history
    (b) Is attacking a bad argument from I guess the bigger debate with Ernst Van Zyl.

    (2) I don’t really see how Apartheid and minority white rule is really a very good example of liberal or conservative theory. Certainly not an ideal example…Neither is it a good example of what is relevant to an inclusive and democratic South Africa…

    (3) However, it does illustrate how both liberals and conservatives approached the question of federalism politically – meaning what was in their best interest politically.

    1. Martin van Staden Reply

      1) To deny the liberal dedication to decentralisation and federalism is really poor form. You know better. Limited government is an undisputed principle of liberalism.

      a) My understanding of liberalism and its history is precisely what it should be. I don’t commit the cardinal sin of overanalysis and overthinking that so many do, by trying to force the square French Revolution into the round hole of liberalism.
      b) Van Zyl is part of it, but he is hardly the only conservative to bizarrely claim that centralisation of power is a liberal phenomenon.

      2) I am sorry that you don’t like my examples.

      3) Liberals supported federalism because federalism is a liberal principle. Conservatives then opposed federalism because they had political power and federalism undermines political power. Conservatives in South Africa have for the first time learned how painful it is to be out of political power, so now federalism has become a principle of theirs as well.

      1. Helgard Muller Reply

        (1) Federalism is a way of structuring government and institutional political power. In short – form of government.

        It is often a way to accommodate cleavages in culture, religion and ethnicity. Often a way to have managed confederacy or the creation of new states (with strong central power btw no driven by devolution). No wonder it is often found in very big states or states that for instance had a history of different parts belonging to different political allegiances. United States, Canada, Australia, Nigeria and countries in Europe (with strong religious, culture / language and ethnic differences) often tried to accommodate the conflict in this fashion when forming states.

        Again – you have to look at the specific context and how it has changed. In US the Federalist supported a stronger central government. (Anti-federalist where more happy with the confederate aspect and weaker central government) Whilst the modern meaning in the US often implies taking power back to the state level (devolution) due to the rise of the powers given to the federal government. Anyway – the point is that it has to do with state building / formation and not some liberal principle…see the concepts of “coming together” and “holding together”

        I don’t want to turn this into a long lecture on federalism. This is the problem with importing libertarian talking points from the US / Youtube and not actually having a solid grounding in political science or even history…My main gripe with our whole classic liberal and libertarian youngsters…

        That all said, clearly it is different then saying liberalism as a political and moral philosophy implies a commitment to federalism. Some liberals have argued for and liberal societies have had federal arrangements but that all sprung from trying to find political accommodation within specific nations state – not some inherent liberal principle that states must be federations or apply federalism…

        I challenge you to show me how “federalism” is a central part of classic liberal thought (thinkers)? How it is not a more pragmatic institutional arrangement – one that doesn’t have to flow from liberalism.

        Just look at the entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Liberalism and Federalism (a good general source). There is nothing of the sort you suggest…

        1. Martin van Staden Reply

          Liberals are federalists because federalism limits the concentration of political power. Yes, there are other reasons for adopting federalism too, and non-liberals can also be federalists. I am not saying liberals “own” federalism — I am saying liberals are decentralisationists, and this is manifested, in South Africa, in federalism.

          The American Federalist Party is not relevant in this case. “Federalist” took a very specific meaning in that context. They sought the federalisation of an even more decentralised confederate system. In South Africa’s context, federalism operates away from centralisation. In America’s case, federalisation operated away from decentralisation. It is unsurprising that Alexander Hamilton, one of the chief statists and least liberal of the American founders, was the leader of the Federalists. Jefferson and Madison, his two opponents, are more closely associated with the American (“classical”) liberal tradition.

          This “importing American talking points thing” is weak sauce, and is an incredibly common criticism from the left as well nowadays. My interest in American politics ended years ago. And I use YouTube mostly for film reviews and video-game playthroughs. I read widely and apply my mind to what I have read, then apply it in the practical political reality in which I find myself. You clearly disagree with my conclusions, and that’s fine, but by attempting to “explain” the disagreement with appeals to a lack of knowledge or me being a “youngster”, is malicious engagement. Carry on with it, and I’ll likely cease engaging entirely. There’s no point to me engaging you bona fide while you just insult my intelligence.

          That my conclusions don’t align with your preferred source in the SEP is irrelevant. It’s like people who constantly tell me I am wrong on matters of constitutional law because Pierre de Vos disagrees with me. I mean, cry me a river? I’ll take your word for it that the conclusions differ, but I don’t particularly care. If you prefer the SEP’s handling of the topics, by all means, read the SEP. Others might prefer my handling of it, and they’ll read what I have to say instead. Others might read both and come to their own conclusions.

      2. Helgard Muller Reply

        (2) You examples are just not as relevant…not the best for settling a debate between liberalism and conservatism in general.

        (3) Ja – look I have a fairly big problem with what you describe as “conservatives” in this context. Afriforum and Solidarity are minority advocacy groups and can often sound like the are less interested in finding a broader accommodation with South Africa. Including dealing with the “reality” of what it means to make peace with the fact that Afrikaners are less then 10% of the population and going forward will be even less…But of course you can I guess talk about minorities as liberals and conservatives in such a narrow context.

        However, that is different then “conservatism” as a set of political ideas or a more inclusive South African conservatism…I am referencing South Africa as a political project and think conservatively about those prospects…

        1. Martin van Staden Reply

          It is amazing that my examples are apparently irrelevant when the title of this contribution is “Centralisation of Power: Liberals and Conservatives in South African History”. I am referring to all the major political players in South Africa’s (1910+) political history, but somehow this is irrelevant to a discussion on the centralisation of power, and liberals’ and conservatives’ answers to it in the history of this country. Truly amazing.

          I have no interest in settling a debate between liberalism and conservatism “in general”, because my interest and knowledge is mainly South African history and South African political disputes, with the background basis in anational liberalism. It would also be impossible for me to “settle” this debate in light of the fact that “conservatism” doesn’t mean the same thing from one location to the next. As Nicholas Woode-Smith has pointed out in an article I’ve referenced repeatedly, conservatism is a temporal position. It depends on what the “conservative” in a given society seeks to conserve. At least, this is the conservatism I am engaged with. I think it will be a challenge to define an anational conservatism since everything depends upon what one wants to “conserve” having been present, or being presently present, in one’s context. Liberalism is different (hence why I claim elsewhere that liberalism and conservatism are not really opposites — many American conservatives are in fact liberals), because it speaks directly to a set of values that transcend national or social boundaries. It relates to “liberty”. If liberty already exists, liberalism is conservative in that it seeks to conserve it, and if liberty is absent, liberalism is progressive in that it seeks to progress toward it.

  2. Failed Democracy: Can Conservatives Tell Liberals “We Told You So”? Reply

    […] alone, conservatism has its own, significant burdens to carry. A historical inquiry is apt. In the previous article the historical record on decentralisation was briefly considered – here, a broader look at the […]


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