DA’s federalist dilemma: Genuine devolution or cosmetic change? – Martin van Staden

As South Africa approaches the 2024 general elections, the political landscape revolves around federalist choices, primarily the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). While the DA emphasises federalism through a proposed Devolution Bill, concerns arise about its commitment. True federalism demands accountability, allowing local entities to thrive or collapse without central intervention. The DA’s cautious approach, linking devolution to competency aligned with their governance, raises doubts. A crucial shift to genuine federalism requires transcending cosmetic changes, embracing responsibility, and acknowledging South Africa’s constitutional federal potential.

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By Martin van Staden*

When looking at the field of federalist politics in South Africa in the runup to the 2024 general elections, there are only two options: the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The DA, in particular, has in recent years attempted to put federalism back on South Africa’s agenda, certainly more so than the IFP. 

But the DA’s approach to federalism raises some crucial questions.

‘Real’ federalism does not merely refer to ‘more localised power.’ Rather, responsibility for failure is just as crucial. A federally-minded central government, whether run by the DA, IFP, or coalition government, should certainly decentralise power, but it must also allow provincial and municipal governments – and their voters – to face the consequences of their decisions.

The principle of subsidiarity, so important to our constitutional order, means that mismanaged and corruptly administered municipalities and provinces can collapse without interference from above, just as much as it means well-governed municipalities and provinces can thrive without interference. 

DA Leader John Steenhuisen’s speech on 6 February setting out the agenda of a ‘DA-anchored’ coalition government’s first 100 days in national office was a good one. He hit all the right notes. 

One thing did stand out, however. Steenhuisen said that the new, post-2024-election parliament, with the DA at the centre of the majority bloc, will introduce and adopt a ‘Devolution Bill.’

It will, among other things, devolve policing powers to ‘competent’ provincial and municipal authorities.

To be clear, I argued in a 2021 Cato Journal contribution that Parliament should adopt such a bill, and I stand by that view. But devolution is not federalism. That the DA seeks a Devolution Bill is not the problem – that it does not also seek a Federalisation Bill, however, is.

South Africa is already, formally – on paper, that is – a federal state, because each sphere of government in South Africa has original constitutional authority that does not depend on permission from the central government. But much of this latent federalism needs to be foregrounded – primarily by the provinces and municipalities themselves. 

But there are some things the central government can do. 

One of the simplest things is to formally rename itself to the Federal Government. This is something that can easily be achieved in the first 100 days of a new administration. And while it is cosmetic, it will fundamentally change how people think and talk about South African politics.

A real federal government understands that it is not parental figure, with the provinces and municipalities being its children to coddle. This is where the DA’s commitment to federalism cracks.

The DA has long entertained notions of governing South Africa as a whole. It – and us – have borne witness to how African National Congress (ANC) misgovernance has functionally destroyed most South African municipalities and made seven out of the nine provinces glorified outposts of Pretoria. 

The DA, no doubt, cringes at the idea of empowering these corrupt and mismanaged municipal and provincial governments while disempowering the central government from intervening. This is why Steenhuisen hedged his commitment to devolution on the criterion that the province or municipality ‘receiving’ the devolved power must be ‘competent.’ 

Read more: It is easier for prisoners to vote than South Africans Abroad – DA Shadow Minister Adrian Roos

As it happens – and this is no coincidence – competent governance and DA governance are almost synonymous in South Africa. This means that, in effect, Steenhuisen was saying that only DA municipal and provincial governments – or, at least those aligned with the Multi-Party Charter – will receive devolved powers. 

This is not federalism, and it is a dangerous point of departure.

The reality is that the DA, if it is to taste national power as part of a coalition, will not hold the reins of power for long enough, or tightly enough, to fix the beleaguered municipalities and provinces from above. 

Coalitions in South Africa have been and will for the foreseeable future be relatively chaotic, meaning that even if the Multi-Party Charter takes power in this year’s election, it might well be short-lived. Additionally, given the nature of coalition politics, no singular, cohesive ‘DA plan’ will be imposable from Pretoria. Compromise is the name of the game. 

Federalism is preferable to mere devolution because it takes responsibility seriously. In a federal dispensation, if any sphere of government fails – 90% of our 257 municipalities already collapsed or are on the brink of collapse – it must pick up the pieces, or its residents must pick someone else to do the job. The faraway central government is not available to stand in as surety. 

The DA’s preoccupation with meritocracy, therefore, also stands uneasily alongside its supposed commitment to federalism. The DA, commendably, wants to ‘get the job done.’ But because it perceives itself as a future national ruler, it seeks the authority to overrule delinquent municipalities and provinces to ‘get it done’ rather than respecting the wishes of the voters in those municipalities and provinces who voted for ruin. 

The Constitution presently does give the central government this authority, but when viewed from a federalist perspective, this power must be wielded very lightly and only under the most destabilising circumstances.

This is the painful dimension of taking responsibility. 

If voters in a municipality choose an administration that has a history of looting and pillaging, those voters must live with the consequences of that decision. In a federal dispensation, the central government must respect those voters’ wishes.

When all is said and done, however, perhaps the simplest (but most substantial) thing that is holding back the DA – and certainly the IFP – from fully embracing their own commitments to federalism, is that they (like the ANC and many others) believe that South Africa is, constitutionally, a unitary state. 

DA and IFP legal advisors are, no doubt, telling them the same lie. For this, they should be fired. No federalist party should rely on the advice of lawyers who cannot spot a federal constitution.

South Africa has been brought to the brink by centralised governance. Even though we have forces dedicated to packing federal substance onto the federal bones of the Constitution, they are themselves excessively ambivalent. Only by embracing true federalism could our politics mature into a mature phenomenon that takes responsibility for failure.

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*Martin van Staden is Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation.