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