Federalism can work in South Africa

South Africa needs federalism for efficient governance, accountability, and tailored laws, dispelling misconceptions about restrictions.


South Africa is too large and unwieldy to be ruled by a single, unitary central government.

Smaller countries have embraced federalism, allowing areas to be governed directly by local governments.

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This increases accountability to residents, prevents the spread of corruption, and allows areas to pass their own laws relevant to their specific contexts.

Yet, many South Africans seem confused by the notion of federalism and home rule. The ANC has pushed the fiction that federalism will lead to apartheid.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Apartheid was not federalist. In fact, the National Party were devout centralists – like the ANC – and insisted on a strong national government ruling all of SA, with provinces having very little power.

South Africa’s post-1994 constitution gives power to provinces to govern their own affairs, yet the ANC’s toxic influence has eroded the already existing constitutional right of provinces.

While provinces should be able to establish their own police forces, manage infrastructure, and even pass laws relevant to their individual contexts, the ANC has insisted repeatedly the country is a unitary state, and will be ruled as such.

Even though South Africa is already – at least constitutionally – a federal system, and that federalism and provinces benefiting from home rule is an incredible boon for the efficiency of local governance, and the prosperity of South Africans, many people seem to fear this would mean a restriction of movement across provinces.

Some individuals have accused advocates of Home Rule of wanting to separate; notably, the Western Cape from the rest of SA to prevent inward migration.

Other individuals have called for the need for strong provincial border controls to prevent a flood of migration from badly performing provinces to well performing ones.

All these comments come from a fundamental ignorance about Home Rule and federalism. This is not a call for independence; Cape independence, or otherwise.

Even if the Western Cape benefits from Home Rule, it would still be a province of the Republic of South Africa.

That means there will be no restrictions of movement between provinces. The US uses a federal system, and the European Union (EU) is a form of federation.

Both allow free movement across their internal borders, facilitating free trade and the mobility of workers, tourists, and citizens.

The fear this will lead to unchecked immigration is foolish. First, because there is already a high amount of migration to the Western Cape without federalism being embraced.

Second, because Home Rule would allow all provinces to embrace policies that can turn growing populations into a boon, rather than something to fear.

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Currently, the Western Cape must abide by all of South Africa’s terrible laws. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), protection of land invasions, overregulation of businesses and labour, threats of expropriation without compensation, and more.

Not to mention how SA Police Service in the Western Cape is underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with violent crime.

Under Home Rule, the Western Cape and other provinces could deregulate their economy, protect property rights, fight land invasions, equip a provincial police force to deal with gangsterism, and dedicate their own budgets to building up the infrastructure needed to turn a growing population from a burden into a boon.

Frederik the Great of Prussia realised long ago that immigration was a potential resource, even encouraging people from vastly different cultures and religions to come work and live in Prussia.

He used these immigrants to build the foundations of what would eventually become the German Empire. Under a federal system, provinces will not be working to control their borders and restrict people from entering.

Rather, provinces will be competing over standards of living and decent policies to attract and retain as many people as possible.

So, Home Rule and federalism will not, and cannot, restrict the movement of South Africans across its autonomous provinces. And it shouldn’t.

• Woode-Smith is an associate at the Free Market Foundation and Western Cape coordinator of the Free Market Foundation’s Campaign for Home Rule.