Among those who occasionally comment on this column is one Jack Klok, who blames the country’s problems in part upon the ‘misplaced idealism’ of liberals. In particular, he claims, ‘John Kane-Berman and the SAIRR strongly promoted universal franchise in a centrally governed unitary state and demonised white rule because of their dislike of Afrikaners’.

These allegations are unfounded. Afrikaners such as Hermann Giliomee would never have accepted high office in the IRR had it ever ‘disliked’ Afrikaners, who have played important roles in the organisation down the years, one of my predecessors as chief executive, Fred van Wyk, among them. Moreover, the IRR was always well aware that the National Party’s policies had the support of plenty of English-speaking whites.   

Nor has the IRR or any other liberal institution ever promoted a centralised state. Had Boer and Brit liberals at the National Convention in 1908-1910 had their way, South African would have been a federal state from the word go. That the country started life as a highly centralised union was mainly due to the influence of Jan Christiaan Smuts. While successive governments since then concentrated on centralising their power, liberals consistently worked for federalism.

‘Federation or Desolation’

My own father was a founder member of the Union Federal Party in the 1950s. It proposed that the central government would have only such powers as the provinces chose to give it. The Progressive Party, launched in 1959, with an Afrikaner as its leader, was a strong proponent of federalism and decentralisation. In 1985 Alan Paton, former president of the Liberal Party, gave a lecture to the IRR under the title ‘Federation or Desolation’.

At the same time the IRR argued that the post-apartheid South Africa should be strongly federalist – to the extent that the provinces would have the power to decide on their own income tax levels and labour laws: the idea was that they would compete for investment, and so need to ensure clean and efficient government. This columnist participated as deputy chairman in the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba, which in 1986 proposed consociational government for Kwazulu-Natal as part of a federal South Africa.

The National Party (NP) spurned the Indaba, as it always rejected anything, however moderate and pragmatic, that would have reduced the powers of centralised government. Its own contribution to the debate about federalism was a ‘constellation of states’ comprising the supposedly ‘white’ area, the ten homelands, and various neighbouring states. This fantasy never got anywhere, because it rested on the assumption that blacks would agree to leaving whites with 87% of South Africa and the NP with all meaningful power.

Not decolonisation but ethnic cleansing

In pursuit of its fantasy the NP forcibly removed between two and three million black people from the ‘white’ area, arrested millions upon millions under the pass laws, and tried to strip all black Africans of their South African citizenship.

Some supporters of the policy depicted it as akin to British decolonisation. It was nothing of the sort. When the British imperialists left India and their African possessions, they went home and handed power to locals. The NP’s plan was to stay put on 87% of the country and remove as many blacks as they possibly could. This was not decolonisation but ethnic cleansing.

The plan was abandoned in the mid-1980s for the simple reason that PW Botha recognised that it was unworkable and unenforceable. Only then did the NP wake up to the advantages of proper federalism. But it was too late. The African National Congress (ANC), having seen how a centralised state had worked to the advantage of the NP, was not about to abandon that prize. Federalism was one of the casualties of the ANC’s ruthlessness during the negotiations leading up to the 1994 election.    

As for ‘universal franchise’, even the NP recognised that nothing but such a franchise was politically saleable, which was why the Liberal and Progressive parties had earlier abandoned their qualified franchise proposals.

Gradual extension of the franchise from the Victorian era onwards was one of the achievements in English constitutional history. Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa did the opposite. Instead of gradually extending the limited Cape coloured franchise agreed upon in 1910, they removed it altogether.

Revolutions sometimes produced worse governments

Contrary to what Mr Klok thinks, the IRR was never naïve enough to believe that majority rule would automatically ensure good governance. We pointed out that revolutions sometimes produced worse governments than the ones they replaced. True liberals always distrust power, which is why they insist on as many checks and balances as possible, federalism among them. It is pity that the Afrikaner nationalists, and their many English-speaking fellow-travellers, woke up so late, preferring to put their faith in fantasy policies backed by bannings, banishment, detentions, and police brutality.  

As liberals predicted all along, these efforts would in the end prove futile. If you disdain gradualist, pragmatic, and moderate solutions, you end up with the revolutionary ideology that is now in power in this country.

[The picture shows delegates to the National Convention at their first sitting in October 1908 in Durban.]

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26 COMMENTS

  1. “In pursuit of its fantasy the NP forcibly removed between two and three million black people from the ‘white’ area, arrested millions upon millions under the pass laws, and tried to strip all black Africans of their South African citizenship.”
    Is there perhaps a citation for the “millions upon millions” of black people arrested under the pass laws and over what time frame? How did our prison system cope with such an influx of people back then?
    Secondly, on the forcible ‘removal’ of black people: ‘Removal’ is the wrong word. ‘Removal’ is what is happening to the white population under democratic SA: over a million white people emigrated permanently OUT of SA since the 90’s (a very significant proportion of the white population). In Apartheid black people were relocated WITHIN SA, yes, but the black population continued to increase in absolute and relative numbers in SA throughout Apartheid. In fact, black people from the rest of Africa continued to immigrate to SA despite knowledge of forcible relocation and Apartheid. In contrast the white population declined in absolute and relative numbers especially since the 90’s, due to (among others) covert forcible removal by barring opportunities through BEE and affirmative action. Very few white people in their right mind would want to immigrate from the ‘west’ permanently to SA today (and even if they wanted to, the path to citizenship is made deliberately painful and arduous, some would say near impossible, by our government). So you tell me which government is worse?

    • Not much of relevance is posited by Brand in respect of federalism. Clearly the truth hurts!

      The appalling political management of “South Africa” from 1910 onwards is testimony to the fact that a unitary state with centralised power has never worked. From 4 (states) renamed ‘provinces’, the country morphed into a patchwork of “bantustans” that provide a mirror image of today’s 9 ‘provinces’ and the three former protectorate states (Botswana, Swati and Lesotho) wholly dependent of the Rand currency. Even Namibia could have been one of the Southern African confederation of states.

      Give to the Zulus that which belongs to the Zulus, I say…

      • In fact I am also in favour of federalism. So was Hendrik Verwoerd, who tried to federalise Southern Africa into Bantustans, according to the population density of each group (albeit not on the economic viability of each Bantustan). The difference between liberals and Hendrik Verwoerd is that that liberals refuse to acknowledge that people naturally gravitate to and feel comfortable in different groups. That an ‘us’ and ‘they’ concept develop over time, naturally (similar to the preamble of the American constitution “WE, the people..).

        • You are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts or to repurpose words.

          There IS no other word but “removal” — forced removal — for what was done to the people of Sophiatown/Triomph, District Six and other “black spots” [sic]

          Quibbling about the number of removals is the tactic of “soft” Holocaust deniers: “it wasn’t Six million, it was only 5,999,999 or whatever”. Forced removals happened, were documented by the press and acknowledged by the Nats-in-government at the time; if it was one or one million the principle remains.

          As for Dr Verwoerd, he set up the Tomlinson Commission to work out the cost of Bantustans and “separate development”. When the Commission estimated the cost as some tens of millions of pounds (after which “white South Africa” would still not be cleansed of blacks), the Nats simply forgot about “development” but pushed ahead with their psychotic “separation”.

          For a non-Afrikaner or non-black the National Socialisms and economic ethnic cleansing of the Nats or the ANC are very similar. The Nats were more sophisticated & suave but there are more civil rights under the ANC (one could not have posted comments on websites or social media under the Nats as one does in SA today and there are no detentions without trial). A bit like comparing Jacob and Cyril: both are wrecking the economy, as did the Nats (de Klerk’s 1990 crossing of the Rubicon was driven by economics, not military losses).

          • The fact is that white people didn’t emigrate en mass during Apartheid. Black people immigrated from the rest of Africa into South Africa during Apartheid. Is the fact that white people left the country in droves after 1990 an indication that white South Africans are inherently racist? Even the PFP party members eventually decided to “Pack For Perth” once their dream of the end of Apartheid was realised. I don’t look at what people say. I look at what they do.

          • I bet many white SA’s won’t mind a bit real reverse grand Apartheid right now. Being given their own Bantustan. Having schools and universities custom build for their own use. Having a say in matters that concerns them. This government will never grant white people that. Why?

    • People would disappear for three weeks at a time and come back with their heads shaven. Of course they arrested people frequently and arbitrarily. The idea that people could be denied citizenship based on the colour of their skin didn’t annoy some people as much then as it annoys them now it seems.

  2. The referendum in 1992 is referred to – the NP did NOT receive a mandate to accept a constitution based on a one man one vote unitary state. Therefore FW de Klerk and his cronies are seen as traitors. Yes, I supported a federal dispensation and I am NOT a liberal.

  3. John, you are, of course, speaking of classic liberalism. Something with which many, very many, on the left today who call themselves’liberal’ have absolutely nothing in common. ‘Liberal’ as the socialist woke mobs like to call themselves, has nothing to do with classic liberalism as it was understood at the dawn of Apartheid. ‘Liberal’ is a label appropriated today by a very illiberal and authoritarian left. I suspect these are the ‘liberals’ Klok was referring to.

  4. This is the very best article describing our political background,past to present,I have ever read!!! Thanks John
    Denis Verity

  5. such is life you always fight from YOUR view point, the likes of the Besters and the Brand, and I think John wrote a good article and I agree with Brand, as I grew up in part of that era, my houselady was one which was replaced from a delapitated house in town to a nice house with a yard 1km away from her town house. many of us have first hand knowledge so we do not take everything we read as truth, but then my truth your truth, so then we say listen, read all then apply logic, again my logic your logic, so we can go on and on and that is why we have our country in the state it is as we cannot see, think, talk accept and get to a communal point so we can move forward in peace, the past is past, we can only now take from it, learn and try not to make the same mistakes

  6. Jan Brandt: At the Codesa negotiations an associate of mine did a presentation proposing a federation based on water catchment areas or water management areas of which what constitutes South Africa then and today, there could be as many as twenty-two, but ideally less. This principle is founded on civilisations established where there are water and fertile land i.e valleys. Historically, you can take the concept as far back as you wish, be it to Europe (the Danube), Asia (the Ganges), and even where Paradise was. It also applied to what became a synthetic country in the twentieth century, it being called the Republic of South Africa. As the proposal was based on sound scientific and demographic principles, it could not be disputed as the solution. Even now the country has eleven official languages, it being a manifestation of an artificial agglomeration. How can you have a line on a map demarcating countries and in the process ignoring cultures and languages – Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and the lists goes on, thanks to a colonial and imperialist past. Needless to say, it didn’t curry favour with the politicians and the result is the mess we have today. It has nothing to do with liberalism, but everything to do with centralism, enrichment, and what became known as state capture.

  7. Ek stem saam JKB.
    My solution
    Give back the land – undo the Union.
    After all, the war leading up to the Union was an act of egregious colonialism, the last grasp of the “Scramble for Africa”, and the arbitrary inclusion of Zululand and “Xhosa land” into the Union was because at the time controlling coastline was of strategic importance to the victors, while Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana were not and therefore excluded.
    It could lead to fixing the arbitrary boundaries that separate groups, tribes and cultures. It could enable a greater protection of those cultures etc. at the risk of being overwhelmed by the larger groups.
    Let’s be brave.

  8. It was very interesting to read the article “Liberals always preferred a federal to a unitary state” and one can not argue against the article .

    But I am of the view that we are all losing the point with reference to a “union state or federalism” So SA to my view is suppose to be a union state with very strong articles of federalism. The question I think should be can SA afford (economically) any form of federalism? before 1994 there were the 4 provinces. Now we have 9 provinces. Can we really afford this type of governance?

    I do not think so!

    • You only have to look at the fragmentation of Nigeria where states were not only created but also split to award/reward political favour. Now you have 36 “states” (and 774 local government areas) each with their own Governor – a proliferation of bureaucracy! And that is the problem with federalism – more and more power-hungry money grabbers screwing the average citizen. We need less government, not more.

  9. Lots of people running around in circles here I see. Firstly, John, I have never seen you before uttering such sweeping statements, why? That kind of behaviour usually exposes lack of substance.
    Yes, people were forcibly removed from Sophia Town. Once a sleepy little village it had become home to a large influx of people who had one thing in common – the idea that all you had to do to improve your lot was to arrive and everything you ever wanted would fall into your lap. So attractive was this misconception that houses designed for families of 5 or 6 suddenly became home to as many as 50. There was not the oversupply of jobs that they had imagined so, they resorted to helping themselves to other people’s property. It became so bad that this little village sported the largest police station in the country. The Council created industrial sites nearby but the theft continued to increase. My mother’s family had bought land in nearby Westdene and Crosby to build their own houses, all they could see was a continuing downgrade in their property values. So the Council stepped in and created alternative accommodation for the overpopulating residents of Sophiatown, moved them, and order was restored. Prior to this the criminal activity spread like a cancer, reaching along Ontdekkers Road as far as Delarey and Maraisburg. So what alternatives would you have had? Lock up the ones who encouraged this unsustainable immigration? Don’t forget Nelson Mandela was one of them!
    As far as the Union is concerned, the fact is that, after the war was finally over the British Government handed control back to the republican governments – subject, of course, oversight by Britain. The movement to create the Union was primarily motivated by Milner and his young men, Curtis in particular, and funded by the Rhodes legacy. Their major ambition was to further the growth of the British Empire, they did a lot of hard work and negotiated strongly to try and achieve this, eventually failing, ambition. What is difficult to understand is how they saw this in parallel with the formation of the Union. I have done a lot of research on this and have not found anything that makes this clear. The matter that the negotiators failed to address is the voting franchise. The vote should have been granted to all the Union citizens from day one. That is the proper way of doing things. By not addressing this matter they left the future citizens. one and all, with a poisoned chalice.

  10. A fine article John, but an event that had a greater negative impact was the failure of the fledgling Union Government to finalise the Dominion of Southern African Satates proposed by Britain in 1922 , I believe. The vision was to create another Dominion like Canada and Australia out of SA, Southern Rhodesia, the prpotectorates of Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, and Namibia. Even Mozambique was considered. This I understand failed because the Afrikaner insisted on Afrikaans (then in its formative years), as a second language, faced objections from the others.And I suppose afrikaner nationalism was starting to assert itself too. My oh my – can one begin to imagine where a proud Dominion of Southern Africa could have found itself in the world today. Further decentralisation of some of the component countries would have also served to decentralise political ambitions.

    • The demographics of Canada and Australia were vastly different to Southern African states. What you would have done by creating such a large dominion would have been to create a major catastrophe the likes of a large African country like the DRC. Africa has the potential to work best in small, nearly homogenous states. Like modern Rwanda. Africa, like Europe, does not have the luxury of large very sparsely populated spaces ready for the formation of enormous conglomerates of states like the US, Canada, Brazil or Australia. Africa and Europe are a soup of cultures which does unfortunately not mix well when taken together.

  11. It is of interest that the governments up to 1948 were very respectful of the Provincial competencies. I went to school in Natal from 1944 to 1949. The photographs of the classes show that there were learners who would not later have passed the test of whiteness — not many, but definitely some. We were also not taught Afrikaans. There was also no capital punishment. When my parents were moved to the Transvaal after that it was something of a shock to have to learn Afrikaans without the grounding and to have to endure a caning in the classroom for a relatively minor transgression. Without arguing the merits of these matters, it was an illustration that education was left to Provinces.

  12. John Kane-Berman, re-read your History. Smuts was the original federalist. He promulgated Racial Federalism, not related to provincial/country boundaries, across Southern Africa.

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