This is the first in a series of five articles on the topic of federalism in South Africa, past, present, and future. Each article may be read as a stand-alone piece, but they are best read chronologically.

The late 1980s through the late 1990s were characterised by South Africa’s transition out of authoritarian white minority rule, which by that time had become much less ‘authoritarian’ but no less ‘white minority.’ Going forward, South Africa had to decide, among other things, whether it would adopt a federal or a unitary structure of government. Which decision was made, how we arrived at this juncture, and what the future holds, are considered in this short series of articles.

Federalism, briefly, means that there is a constitutional division of power between the central government and regional governments, with areas in each sphere which the other level of government may legally not encroach upon, at least not before a complex process is followed or certain constitutional requirements are met. Unitarism, on the other hand, means that any division of power is discretionary, rather than constitutional – the central government may decide whether or not it wants to devolve power on the regions, or whether there should be regional governments at all. The central government, in a unitary state, may freely encroach on any matter it has delegated to the regions.

Between 1910 and the transition of the early 1990s, South Africa had unequivocally been a unitary state, with some formal overtures to federalism to be found in the early years of the Union Senate, and later in the Apartheid government’s homelands policy. Because the Apartheid government paid lip-service to decentralisation with the homelands, any calls for federalism or even unitary devolution in South Africa today are often met with accusations of a racist desire to bring about ’neo-Apartheid.’

In this article and the next four articles, the history of federal advocacy in South Africa, the current constitutional state of federalism, and the reasons why the discourse around federalism and devolution should be revived for future prosperity, are considered.

One nation, divisible, with liberty and justice for no one

Up to the first decade of the twentieth century, the underlying assumption among those who wanted to see the various states throughout the South African region united into one country was that such a union would be federal. The former British colonies in America, Canada, and most recently at the time in Australia, had all federated, and it seemed natural that South Africa, a large country that in 1909 consisted of four British colonies, would follow this model. Later, Nigeria and India, also British colonies, too, would federate.

Just because it was expected, however, does not mean that federalism was preferred.

Historian LM Thompson writes in The Unification of South Africa, 1902-1910 (1961) that a unitary arrangement was preferred at the time when the Union of South Africa was created. Three people were primarily responsible for changing the discourse from federal union to a unitary legislative union: John Xavier Merriman, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and (to a lesser degree) Marthinus Theunis Steyn.

Merriman, a leading Cape Colony politician who at the time of unification was its Prime Minister, wanted a unitary South Africa because a federal arrangement would have been too ‘extravagant’ and costly. An old Whig, he did not want the taxpayer to foot the bill for four separate parliaments, executives, and court systems. Merriman, steeped in the British parliamentary tradition, sincerely believed, like many later during the transition, that democracy was itself a strong enough check on the abuse of government power.

General Smuts, a Boer War commander and leading politician in the pre- and post-Boer War Transvaal, was a federalist until the middle of the 1900s, but was eventually won around to Merriman’s argument. Among other things, Smuts, who at the time was no doubt developing his philosophy of ‘holism’ (whole-ism), additionally wanted a unitary South Africa because ‘the national will of [white] South Africa’ ought to override regional squabbles. Litigation and disputes between the various regional governments and the central government were not conducive to good governance, and the relatively recent American Civil War showed what extreme conceptions of federalism might lead to.

Finally, there was Marthinus Steyn, the last State President of the Orange Free State. He wanted Afrikaners, spread throughout the independent states in the region, to finally be united in a single polity, and he was also convinced by Merriman’s argument about the economics of unification.

With no notable exceptions, everyone who participated in the National Convention of 1908-1910 sought a uniform ‘native policy’ to apply throughout the Union, without regional deviations. No single colony was regarded as strong enough to fend off ‘native rebellions’ without the assistance of the other colonies, and as such it made logistical and practical sense for their policies on the matter to be unified.

All three men were South Africans. Smuts and Steyn were Afrikaners, and Merriman emigrated to the Cape as a child and was a close ally to Afrikaner political causes, often against his English brethren. The idea of uniting the South African states into one was also not new. Various Boers from the Republics – when they were still independent – and Britons from the colonies, had called for it in some form or another since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

The idea that Great Britain somehow forced unification on South Africa, in other words, is nothing but a myth at worst and an overemphasis of the role the imperial government played at best. The British government did support having a single South African state, but after the (militarily, monetarily, and spiritually) costly Boer War, the imperial government was very reluctant to impose anything without local buy-in. Britain, then governed by the Liberal Party which had a strong faction opposed to the intervention that led to the Boer War, was very consciously pursuing a policy of reconciliation and friendship with Afrikaners at the time.

In fact, those closest in sentiment to the British, the English in the Natal Colony, were the only diehard federalists who participated in the National Convention. At this convention, the content of the South Africa Act – the united country’s first constitution – was agreed. The Natal delegation felt so strongly about federation that they arrived at the convention with a draft federal constitution, which divided South Africa into ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,’ ready to be adopted. The other delegations, however, made short work of any such proposals.

Some Natalians were prepared to abandon the unification project entirely if they did not get federal concessions, and the concessions they received that contained some forms, but not the substance, of federalism, allowed them to begrudgingly enter the Union. The economic benefits of unification were however not lost on Natal.

Edgar Brookes explained in 1933 that while the South Africa Act bore some resemblance to Canadian federalism, the essential proviso that the Union’s central government could overrule any decision or ordinance by a provincial council meant that one could not describe the Union of South Africa as federal. This basic principle of government – that Pretoria’s word was final – continued until the transition.

As soon as the ink on the South Africa Act was dry, the successive governments began a process of intense centralisation, eliminating any pretences of federalism.

From Union to Apartheid

The white Natalians feared that unitarism would mean the end of their English language and traditions. They also wanted to protect the economic role that Durban was playing as a port, and not lose out to competing Cape ports. The Natalians were certainly not liberal federalists, it should be noted. The Cape unitarists were more liberal, in fact, having a more open qualified franchise compared to Natal.

The defeat of their federalist sentiments at the National Convention did not dissuade various Natal factions from advocating unitary devolution, federalisation, and even secession, in the coming decades.

On the devolution front, Natal was a stronghold of Jan Smuts’ South African Party (SAP, later the United Party). The SAP and Smuts, no federalists, made a concession to Natal by embodying unitary decentralisation in the party’s policy programme. But in the early 1930s Smuts very forcefully and openly spoke about how South Africa would not federalise, arguing the matter was dealt with and decided by the country’s founding fathers some two decades earlier.

On the separatist front, when the Pact Government of 1924-1933, comprised of the National Party (NP) and the Labour Party, threatened to sever the imperial connection to Britain, some members of Parliament representing Natal constituencies threatened secession from South Africa. Usually, but not always, separatism was regarded as a way for Natal to re-enter the Union but on a strong federalist basis, rather than a permanent separation, given the economic benefits of a single country.

With the unification of the SAP and NP into the United Party (UP) in 1934 (the NP would soon thereafter leave the party again), many English supporters formed the Dominion Party. With them went a contingent of Natal federalists and separatists. But the Dominion Party was focused predominantly on the imperial connection between the whole of South Africa and Britain, not merely Natal, leading to the effective death of what historian Paul Thompson, in his Natalians First: Separatism in South Africa, 1909-1961 (1990), calls ‘extreme separatism.’ Only notable calls for federalism and devolution would continue.

The decline of Natalianism

The UP firmly won Natal against the NP in the infamous 1948 general election, but in the process lost its majority in the central Parliament. The UP, nominally committed to decentralisation but not federalism, would be the last governing party of South Africa, other than the NP, before the African National Congress thundered to power in 1994.

The complete death of Natal secessionism was clearly illustrated when some within the Torch Commando, a sincere anti-fascist group of Second World War veterans, called for Natal to separate from South Africa in the early NP government years. Not only did the NP laugh off any suggestion of the idea, but the UP-controlled Natal provincial government rejected it and the UP itself rejected it as well. The Natal Torch Commando would go on to form the ineffectual United Federal Party in 1953, proposing that South Africa be reconstituted as a federation.

By 1959, Paul Thompson writes that the appetite of the Natal voter for the issue of federalism and devolution had all but disappeared. This was largely replaced with the issue of Apartheid. The contest was no longer between decentralists and centralists, but between non-racialists and racialists. The racialists were represented by the UP in Natal – it was only in the few years before the UP’s successor, the New Republic Party, dissolved in 1988, that it became interested in some form of non-racialism – and the NP nationally, whereas non-racialism had found its first effective parliamentary advocate (other than the failed Liberal Party) in the newly formed Progressive Party, the major predecessor of today’s Democratic Alliance.

By 1961, Natal had been part of a unitary South Africa for five decades. Brookes explains that already by 1933 there was a younger generation in Natal that did not share their parents’ provincialism. By the 1960s, the idea of anything other than a united South Africa had dissipated.

In 1986, the provincial councils were abolished in their entirety, after many decades of being progressively emasculated. They were replaced by bodies appointed directly from Pretoria. Had this happened in the 1920s, Natal would have been ablaze. But the event in the midst of the 1980s went by without much fanfare, certainly no renewed calls for secession. Natal had, additionally, by this time acquired a reputation for racial tolerance, according to Edward Lynch in the course of his comment on the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba, which is discussed in the next article.

The homelands

From the NP, of course, came the policy of the various so-called homelands (first known as ‘reserves’, then as ‘bantustans’, then ‘homelands’, and finally ‘national states’) spread throughout South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia). The core of the homelands policy was not decentralisation for the sake of checking and balancing central government power, but to move South Africa’s black population into ostensibly ‘independent’ states so that South Africa proper could acquire a white majority.

The homelands, for the greater duration of Apartheid, were nothing more than special provinces, still under the discretionary rule of Pretoria. The 1951 Bantu Authorities Act and the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, statutes enacted by the all-white South African Parliament, were not federal instruments, but ironically told the homelands exactly how they had to be autonomous. Even the instruments of ostensible complete independence were pieces of legislation adopted by the South African Parliament.

In other words, imagine that the American Declaration of Independence was an Act of the British Parliament. This would have been fine – the same was the case in Canada and elsewhere in the British Empire – if, as happened during the transition, the South African Parliament did not simply have to repeal those Acts to revoke the independence of these ‘states’. If the British Parliament could ‘repeal’ the South Africa Act of 1909 today, it would not mean South Africa reverts to four separate British colonies. Yet Parliament’s repeal of the homelands Acts precisely entailed the reversion of the homelands ’back’ into South African sovereignty.

It is widely, perhaps unanimously, agreed that at no point can it be said that the homelands were independent of Pretoria, even though they had nominally greater powers than the South African provinces for a time.

Apartheid, of course, was far more than its homelands dimension. In fact, the homelands policy might represent the least of Apartheid’s crimes against humanity. Many of the things the Apartheid government did in pursuance of its homelands policy were severely anti-humanitarian and authoritarian, but the notion that some parts of a country being able to govern themselves autonomously is somehow racist in itself is preposterous. In other words, if the homelands policy had been, in fact, a real enterprise of federalisation or balkanization, it might have had merit. But it was nothing more than an act of domination, with the NP trying to have its cake and eat it at the same time.

In reality, there was very little ‘federal’ about the era before 1994. But despite the death of the Natalian federalist cause in the 1960s, South African federal discourse reached a new peak in the late 1980s and 1990s, which will be discussed in the next two articles of this series.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Image by Barend Lotter from Pixabay

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). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit