Woode-Smith calls for federal autonomy: SA’s need for decentralised governance

In a sprawling nation like South Africa, the insistence on a unitary state by the ANC is not just erroneous but reckless. With its vast cultural, linguistic, and economic diversity, centralized governance fails to address local needs effectively. The presence of provincial governments and clauses in the constitution supporting self-determination contradict the ANC’s stance. It’s time for federal autonomy, allowing regions like the Western Cape to govern according to their unique contexts and demands, fostering better governance and addressing systemic issues.

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By Nicholas Woode-Smith*

A country as large and as diverse as South Africa  is far too large to be run by a single, central government. And insistence by the African National Congress (ANC) that South Africa is a unitary state is not only patently wrong, but irresponsible.

The existence of provincial governments and parliaments, and clauses supporting self-determination and autonomy in the constitution, contradicts the ANC’s claims that South Africa is unitary. Provincial, municipal, and other forms of local government are equipped and should be given the rights and privilege to govern local affairs according to local contexts and need.

This is not just an ideal for the liberal decentralists or the federalists who helped inform the Constitution, but a necessity.


South Africa has eleven official languages. It is approximately 1.22 million square kilometres in size, with a population of 59.39 million people (as of 2021). We’re so large, geographically, that while we exist under a single time zone, in reality we exist under at least two.

And all these numbers cannot disguise the vast cultural differences that still persist across this country. Not just in aspects of religion and race, which can be overcome, but in the ways that people would like to be governed. The existence of tribal monarchies, customary law, homelands which effectively still exist, and incredibly different expectations from government could reveal how differently South Africans want to be governed.

Economic diversity also necessitates a different lens for different areas. A first-world city like Cape Town should not be existing under the same policies and regulations as the rural Northern Cape.

Western Cape

The Western Cape has been governed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) for a decade and a half. The ANC is very unlikely to break this streak. At least, not legally. But while the DA has demonstrated an aptitude for governance in the Western Cape, other South Africans are not convinced. They still elect the ANC, which uses its central governance to enact bad laws that oppress people who didn’t even elect them.

The unfairness of people living in a DA-province still being governed, at least in part, by the ANC, is just one reason for why we need increased federal autonomy in this country.

The other reason is sheer scale. The United States is a country with a single language, a unifying culture, a single view on how a country should be governed, and a much more sophisticated bureaucracy than we could ever hope to achieve. Yet, it is still divided into 50 states with their own independent governments, law enforcement, legislative capabilities, and even local cultures.

Belgium, a country roughly a quarter the size of the Western Cape, has a federal system. Not to mention Switzerland, only slightly larger than Belgium, which has divided its tiny country into 26 independent cantons.

These tiny countries have seen the necessity and virtue of a country being governed on a local level, allowing provinces or their equivalent as much power as possible to take care of their own affairs.

No reasonable argument

South Africa has a corrupt, outdated, bloated and unsophisticated bureaucracy, almost zilch cultural and political unity, and almost a dozen spoken languages. There is no reasonable argument for this country to be centrally governed.

The ANC government needs to end its power-hungry obsession with keeping South Africa centralised under its inept governance and even worse laws. If there is to be a future for this country, it must become decentralised, with federal autonomy, provincial independence, and local rule becoming the norm.

Only then will local governments be equipped to utilise their resources, knowledge, and closeness to their constituencies to fix the problems caused by central government.

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Nicholas Woode-Smith*  is an Associate at the Free Market Foundation and Western Cape coordinator of the FMF Campaign for Home Rule.

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