This is the second 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 standalone piece, but they are best read chronologically.

Between 1910 and 1961, South Africa’s only notable federalists were found among the white electorate of Natal. They were overruled time and time again for half a century, before their movement faded away. Almost immediately, the Progressive Party, founded in 1959, picked up the torch of federalism, but focused its efforts on opposing the National Party (NP)’s authoritarianism and racialism. 

During the 1970s, with the late Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, no longer an ideological force propelling separate development forward and with an NP therefore no longer ideologically committed to so-called “Grand” Apartheid, there was renewed, but academic, interest in federalism. This time, however, this interest was not linked to Natal or to safeguarding the essential character of any province, but was about devising an alternative to Apartheid for South Africa as a whole, according to Douglas Irvine in his contribution to Constitution-Making in the New South Africa (1991). 

The Progressive Party nominally kept federalism on the political radar since 1960, when the Molento Commission’s report was published. In the 1970s, the Progressive Party would eventually be known as the Progressive Federal Party. The United Party (UP), around 1962, adopted the idea of a so-called “race federation” which it would promote for about a decade, but the federal credentials of this proposal are to be doubted.

The NP’s reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, again put federalism on the back burner. The Nats wanted to attempt a quasi-consociational model (power-sharing) first, before it broke the centralist power that it and its South African Party/UP predecessors had built up over the previous few decades. This tricameral system that the 1983 Constitution ushered in would dominate the constitutional discourse until later in that decade, when federalism came front and centre, again in its old home of Natal.

One wonders whether the winds that blow up and down South Africa’s east coast bring with them the seeds of federalism.

The KwaZulu/Natal Indaba

Around the time of the abolition of the provincial councils in 1986, representatives of all South Africa’s major racial groups gathered in Durban for the KwaZulu/Natal Indaba.

The homeland of KwaZulu, a semi-autonomous bantustan established by the NP government circa 1970, found itself under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, an ardent federalist and leader of the non-African National Congress-affiliated anti-Apartheid movement known as Inkatha. 

The province of Natal, meanwhile, within which the KwaZulu homeland was located, was governed by the New Republic Party (NRP, the successor to the UP) until the end of the provincial council system, and most of the NRP’s members of Parliament represented Natal constituencies. The NRP and the KwaZulu government decided to devise an answer to the abolition of the provincial councils (replaced by provincial executive committees appointed by Pretoria) and the increasing loss of autonomy of the regions.

Buthelezi led a commission of inquiry in the early 1980s, the report of which would serve as the basis of the Indaba’s deliberations. The 1982 report called for considerable regional autonomy on a federal basis and concluded that KwaZulu and Natal were in fact “one geographic unit” artificially separated. It proposed a consociational cabinet (power-sharing), proportional representation, a minority veto, and considerable power devolved to the regions. The commission report’s most practical consequence was the 1986 establishment of the Statutory Joint Executive Authority, which was composed of equal numbers of representatives from the KwaZulu and Natal governments. The authority was established several months before the provincial councils were abolished altogether. Edward Lynch provided a helpful overview of the Indaba in 1987.

The Indaba, co-hosted by the NRP and KwaZulu government, was the other most notable consequence of the Buthelezi Report. The event marked the first time in decades that Natal, this time joined by many other types of formations, once again found itself at the forefront of calling for the federalisation of South Africa. Any suggestion of secession was expressly excluded this time, however. 

This multi-racial meeting included representatives of all major racial groups, business, unions, agriculture, and notable political groups, except the African National Congress (ANC)/United Democratic Front (UDF), the NP, and the Conservative Party. Government observers from Pretoria were also in attendance, but did not participate.

Formations in the western part of the Cape, always more liberal than the remainder of South Africa, indicated their interest in a similar indaba for their region.

The Indaba, called after the NRP government in Natal had to choose between real, interracial power-sharing or the complete loss of power, proposed merging the KwaZulu homeland and the Natal province into a single, federal KwaZulu-Natal or Natal-KwaZulu, based on the following principles: South African patriotism (no secession), full political participation of all the people of the region, freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law, non-racialism, a free market, government protection for both individual and group rights, and as much devolution of power as possible.

Lynch writes that the Indaba’s recommended constitution for the new federal province (called a “state”) would include a bicameral legislature, with one chamber elected through universal suffrage according to proportional representation and the other chamber representing the various groups that comprised the population. Each group – Africans, Afrikaners, Asians, English – would receive ten seats and an additional ten seats, which would be reserved for a general “South African” group, for those who did not wish to vote along ethnic lines. The representatives in these groups would similarly be elected according to proportional representation within their respective groups.

Each group in the group chamber possessed a minority veto on any proposed law that affected the linguistic, cultural or religious rights of that group.

Various mechanisms and incentives were built into the Indaba’s group chamber recommendation to promote interracial cooperation and eventually de-emphasise race in KwaZulu-Natal politics.

The first chamber would elect the Prime Minister of the region, who would preside over a ten-minister cabinet. The Prime Minister’s party would be entitled to choose five ministers, and the remaining five were to be chosen by an electoral college composed only of the opposition parties represented in both chambers of the legislature. Each group in the chamber had to have a representative in cabinet.

As to regional powers, the Indaba said that the new regional government must have, amongst others, the power to collect taxes, to regulate primary and secondary education, to engage in economic, social and financial planning, to regulate health services, social welfare, agriculture, forestry, veterinary and conservation, land use planning, housing schemes, tourism, and regulate local government and tribal authorities. A “Natal Regional Force” would be established and the regional government would gain certain law enforcement powers, as well as certain judicial competencies.

Under the Indaba’s proposals, Pretoria would be left with the power to oversee foreign affairs, defence and national intelligence, police and prisons (but for those police powers granted to the provinces), posts, telecoms, rail, harbours, taxes, customs, excise and labour affairs. Pretoria would be able to appoint a largely ceremonial provincial governor, in the same way the British monarch may still nominally appoint governors and lieutenant governors in Australian and Canadian provinces.

The Indaba’s proposals were rejected by conservative Afrikaners and by the ANC/UDF bloc. The former argued that the power-sharing proposals were insufficient, which Lynch in his analysis disputes, and the latter predictably claimed to only be interested in an unqualified non-racial, unitary arrangement. Lynch opines that the ANC’s rejection of the Indaba proposals revealed “their political intentions” of “a monopoly of power” after the end of the white regime.

The NP, despite having publicly committed to ending Apartheid by this time, still practiced political centralisation and did not want the Indaba’s proposals to undermine its abolition of the provincial councils, and their replacement by executive committees and regional services councils. 

Lynch writes that, had the Indaba’s proposals been adopted, South Africa would have become a federation, likely leading to blacks moving to those provinces with non-racial policies. Donald Horowitz, in his A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society (1991), speculated that the Cape province would soon have followed through with a similar process of federalisation had the KwaZulu Indaba been successful. Such an event would have put enormous pressure on the NP government to end Apartheid, as the Transvaal and Orange Free State would likely have experienced a mass exodus of labour. (In 1986, it must be remembered, the international communist bloc still existed and provided support to the armed struggle – the transition that would formally begin in 1990 was not at all expected.) Federalism was to be the tool with which Apartheid was eliminated. 

Federalist slideaway

At the same time of rising academic interest in federalism, of the NP’s consociational experiment and of the KwaZulu/Natal Indaba, another phenomenon was happening in the ranks of Apartheid’s liberal and federalist opponents. 

Readers would already be aware of the so-called “liberal slide-away” that gripped liberals during the 1980s. In the eponymous book, Jill Wentzel explains how many liberals decided to change tack and join the ANC and UDF, a broadly socialist, centralist movement, rather than continue supporting the Progressive Party or the variety of liberal institutions. Many of them, in fact, took formerly liberal institutions with them.

I surmise that a reason for this slide-away was the liberal discontent with the progress they had made up to then. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, then leader of the Progressive Party and therefore leader of the opposition, embodied this discontent when he surprised his own party by resigning in 1986. To Slabbert, parliamentary opposition to Apartheid had proven ineffectual, and he shifted his focus to civil society. The discontent of other nominal liberals went deeper, however, as they became outright hostile to liberalism and its associated concepts like federalism.

Nominally liberal thinkers therefore shifted their advocacy away from civil liberties and equality of rights, to calls for centralisation of power under unqualified majority rule – by whatever means – endorsing the violence employed by UDF-affiliated entities. 

For federalists suddenly their cause, which had always stood opposite to Apartheid, became associated with that system. This was no accident. It served the ANC and its partners well to associate any ideas or institutions that would later hold it accountable or limit its power as a government, with racism and white supremacy. This tactic continues unabated today.

Committed federalists did, however, remain. South Africa: The Solution (1986), co-written by Leon Louw and Frances Kendall, the latter later leading the small Federal Party during the 1994 general election, was a bestseller. It recommended that South Africa radically federalise, not into the four provinces that then existed, but into the hundreds of contemporary magisterial districts, each of which would have its own constitution, courts, and government, subject to a federal government that had very limited scope and power. The basis of this proposal was the Swiss federal system.

In the next article, how federalism was dealt with during the transition out of white minority rule in the 1990s is considered.

[Photo: alamy – RBWC5T]

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

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