Multi-Party Charter: A new pillar for post-2024 South Africa, promoting unity and decentralisation – Martin van Staden

The Multi-Party Charter (MPC) emerges as a potential transformative force in post-2024 South Africa. While not expected to secure a majority in the upcoming elections, it symbolises a departure from the country’s historical leftist governance. Rooted in Neo-Calvinist principles of ‘sphere sovereignty’ and ‘pillarisation,’ the MPC could foster diverse, self-contained communities. By championing values like federalism and non-racialism, it has the potential to become a unifying pillar, promoting decentralisation and societal cooperation beyond traditional party politics. The post-2024 landscape offers a chance for South Africa’s political landscape to evolve towards a more harmonious and collaborative future.

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By Martin van Staden*

The Multi-Party Charter has the potential to become a new pillar in South African society – just what the country might need after the 2024 general election.

The Multi-Party Charter (MPC) is unlikely to obtain a majority in this year’s vote. It might even fall just short of winning the provincial elections in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

But the organised opposition now represents a significant portion of the South African population that has mercifully abandoned the radically leftist type of governance – focused on redistribution and statism, and prone to vast corruption – that the country has been subjected to for years. 

This community of South Africans must be continuously nurtured, mobilised, and grown. And it is in this sphere – outside of strictly formal politics – that the MPC could play an invaluable role after 29 May. It should certainly not be dissolved after the elections.

Sphere sovereignty and pillarisation

Neo-Calvinist thought employs the prominent federalist notions of ‘sphere sovereignty’ and ‘pillarisation’. 

Sphere sovereignty is the notion that each social ‘sphere’ (religion, business, family, the press, and so forth) should be sovereign in its specialised domain, and subordinate when it ventures into the domain of another sphere. When you are in a church, for example, the church – not the state – is sovereign, and you abide by the church’s rules and dictates.

Pillarisation, distinctively but in a similar vein, refers to social groups forming cohesive, relatively insular societies in themselves, despite co-existing with others in a single polity. Thus, in places like the Netherlands and Switzerland, and to a large degree in South Africa already, each group – ideological, ethnic, cultural, or language-based – has its own religious and educational institutions, press outlets, and even political parties. This is the opposite of having ‘common’ institutions that cut across all distinguishing lines.

Common institutions will, of course, always be present, especially after the wonderful benefits of globalisation and the market economy are correctly identified. But when one lives in a society beleaguered by centralisation and excessive concentration risk, there is something to be said in favour of some degree of pillarisation.

Existing pillars

To my mind, there are already four prominent pillars in South Africa. These are the broader African National Congress (ANC) movement, the Solidarity Movement, the Jewish community, and the Muslim community. Each of these pillars is relatively self-contained, with its own political institutions, press outlets, and community, religious, and educational institutions.

The Zulu nation has the potential to be a pillar once the Zulu kingdom detaches itself from Pretoria’s teat and begins to become a more proactive protector of Zulu interests.

The Democratic Alliance’s ‘whole of society’ strategy, while commendable, has been unable to spawn much other than consultations and engagements between the party and those sympathetic to its policy positions. 

Nation-building

Proponents of the elusive notion of ‘nation-building’ regard sphere sovereignty and pillarisation as polarising, and as heralding the disintegration of the unified ‘South African nation’ they desperately (and fantastically) wish to see come about. These nation builders also tend to favour the centralisation of political authority, so that all government institutions ultimately practise social engineering together, in every sphere of life, to attain their ideals. 

The conscious nation-building enterprise – which might be regarded as the ANC’s attempt to promote its own sphere over the whole of society – has failed and will continue to fail. 

Trillions of taxpayer rands and three decades of misrule have been sunk into the venture, with precious little to show for it. South Africans simply do not want to abandon their identities and form a singular South African nation, and this decision should be respected. 

Nation-building is not an inherently problematic phenomenon, of course, if it occurs organically. South Africans coming together proudly to celebrate a Rugby World Cup victory, or coming together across racial divides during the July 2021 riots to combat disorder, are examples of how – over time – one might see a ‘South African nation’ emerge. 

The transformationist, top-down strategy employed by the government since at least 1998, however, is nothing more or less than a centralist, totalitarian enterprise that seeks to benefit a political class, not the masses.

There are nonetheless successful countries and states around the world that prosper without being nations. The United States of America and Switzerland are two prominent examples. But it is primarily the post-colonial world, seduced by the fantasy of nation-building, that is struggling to make the necessary compromises with reality, and hoping to see prosperity result.

South Africans do not, right now, desire to be a single nation, no matter how desperately some among us wish for this not to be so. And because it is a reality, it is appropriate for us to understand, and ideally embrace sphere sovereignty and pillarisation not as polarising institutions, but as methods through which all South Africans can build communal institutions and prosper both collectively and separately. 

Taking communal ownership of certain institutions is strong medicine that tends to yield a greater sense of purpose and responsibility.

Decentralisation

The difference between polarisation and pillarisation is that the former is about confrontation and opposition between the poles, while the latter is about harmonious co-existence and cooperation that falls short of amalgamation and subsidiarity.

The MPC could represent a new pillar in South African society that unites around its charter of values, like the rule of law, federalism, an open market economy, and non-racialism.

It would then not only be beneficial for political decentralisation, but also for South Africa’s democracy, if – in the five years after 29 May – we began to see new media wedded to this worldview developing, alongside various other civil society institutions like (private) schools and universities, trade unions, and employers’ associations.

Many media houses have aligned themselves ideologically with the ANC and its allies, and a few media houses with the opposition parties, but this has not yet been openly acknowledged in any real sense. Getting honest about the realities and nature of South African politics can only do us well.

With the Western Cape provincial government as its (virtually guaranteed) stronghold, the Multi-Party Charter can form the nucleus of not only a geographically federalist movement in South Africa, but of a socially federalist one as well, just as the United Democratic Front was the nucleus of the centralist democratic movement in the 1980s.

Movements go beyond party politics and extend into various social and economic realms. This is something the ANC has long understood but which the opposition still cannot quite comprehend. The post-2024 environment is the perfect opportunity for it to readjust its approach.

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*Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). 

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission