Today marks the end of the Free Market Foundation (FMF)’s south coast roadshow, from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town, and the launch of the FMF’s Campaign for Home Rule. The time to plead for mere devolution is over – it is time to simply make bottom-up federalism a reality.

The 2024 general election has been described as the most important election of the post-1994 generation. This is arguably true, and the importance of this vote cannot be lightly dismissed. But even as we prepare to go to the polls, South Africa’s society and economy are unravelling, necessitating urgent action.

In a way, the result of the general election is irrelevant to the cause of bottom-up federalism in South Africa. This cause is comprehensively elaborated in my paper, ‘Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission: Practical Steps Towards Home Rule in South Africa’.


If the African National Congress (ANC) scrapes through with a majority, decentralisation will be necessary to prevent the harm the ANC’s centralising tendencies have wreaked over the past three decades from continuing.

If the ANC goes into a coalition with the Democratic Alliance (DA) or another relatively benign Multi-Party Charter (MPC) party, two outcomes are possible. The more likely scenario is that the coalition would go belly-up relatively quickly – the DA will not stick around while the ANC refuses to stop being corrupt. Even during the expected euphoric phase that will follow the announcement of such a coalition, active steps toward decentralisation must be taken.

The less likely outcome is that the coalition could survive. If this is to be, the MPC coalition partner must nonetheless set significant federalist preconditions that the ANC must concede before the coalition formally comes into operation. This is because once the coalition gets going, it will likely end up being an attempted ‘redo’ of the years 2008-2024. This is the ‘South Africa’s policies aren’t the problem, only the implementation’ scenario. The policies are, in fact, the problem, and ‘implementing them better’ would damage South Africa’s socio-economic position significantly. Decentralisation would remain necessary.

If the MPC itself secured a majority, its tenure would be chaotic and require many compromises, given how any agenda would need the buy-in of all the political parties that comprised the coalition. Many of the policies that have damaged South Africa’s socio-economic status would likely continue, even if enforced in a more even-handed manner. This scenario, however, is probably not going to materialise. And even if it did – given the aforementioned instability – the MPC might fall out of power quite soon if one of its members cosied up to the ANC, thus necessitating decentralisation.

If the ANC went into a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the uMkhonto weSizwe Party, or other less benign parties, it would in all likelihood be forced to concede heavily to radicals. One need not elaborate on why significant decentralisation would be necessary under such circumstances.

Home Rule

Pursuing the cause of decentralisation can take many forms. It includes meekly pleading for devolution – or actively seizing authority in line with what the Constitution explicitly and implicitly allows. But it is a positive, constructive, and optimistic cause, which is why primarily using a term meaning ‘the opposite of centralisation’ – decentralisation – would not do.

What devolutionists and federalists ultimately desire is Home Rule. Those ‘at home’ must govern the home. Or, in the words of David A Bosnich of the Acton Institute, describing the principle of subsidiarity:

‘[A]ny activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. It conflicts with the passion for centralization and bureaucracy characteristic of the Welfare State.’

Not only does Home Rule implicitly guard individual liberty and free enterprise, it also cultivates responsibility and accountability.

It cultivates responsibility because true federal decentralisation would make subcentral units largely responsible for their own welfare. In South Africa, this is essential in the face of a collapsing central state that has no intention of playing fair with provinces or municipalities in the distribution of resources. No matter how desperately provinces or municipalities want Pretoria to provide, those days are at best numbered, and it would be better for local populations if subcentral units of government started taking responsibility sooner rather than later.

Home Rule also cultivates accountability. ‘That is not a provincial/municipal matter, but a function of the central government,’ is a very popular excuse among officials and politicians in the provincial and municipal spheres. This, they think, impresses voters, who get upset at the failing central government and will vote for something better come the next election. The reality is that such a shifting of blame looks pathetic and does not solve the (often simple) issue the citizen has brought forth. Given the collapse of the central government, South Africans can rightly increasingly hold provincial and municipal functionaries to account, regardless of where responsibilities might formally lie.

The days of politicians relying on formalities to escape responsibility must be put behind us, until the decline is arrested by governments and organisations with direct and local mandates for solving solve real problems.

All of this is compatible with the Constitution if it is read – as it should be – as a federal constitution, a living constitution, and a constitution that entrenches and respects subsidiarity. The centralist interpretation of a formally federal Constitution that has prevailed over the past three decades has been inappropriate.

Funding federalism

It is up to officials and politicians in the provincial and municipal spheres to grit their teeth and jettison the conciliatory approach they have hitherto adopted with the central government. It is up to them – not the central government, which simply will not do it – to begin reading the Constitution and the responsibilities it entrusts them with more appropriately.

Next to the (incorrect) argument that ‘it would be illegal’, these (primarily opposition) politicians are fond of saying that they cannot financially afford to get things done without the support of Pretoria.

This is a relevant consideration, but not an insurmountable problem.

Funding will gravitate toward any good and viable idea that has skilled and dedicated people ready to implement it.

The reason that there is no money for a Western Cape Provincial Police Service (for example), is not because the central government refuses to devolve policing downwards. It is because the Western Cape government does not believe that it may establish such an entity. And if it does not even harbour such a basic belief, then it follows that the private sector would not even begin to contemplate funding such an initiative.

If, however, the provincial government did believe – as it should – that it may unilaterally create its own police force, and if it staffed the upper echelons of such a force with the very best police managers and organisers that South Africa has produced in the past half-century, it will be able to fundraise among the businesses and citizens of the Western Cape quite easily.

Backbone and conviction               

Backbone and conviction are necessary for all of this. The opposition, as of now, remains largely ambivalent and overly cautious.

Caution is the desire to avoid potential danger and is an instinctive part of being human. Prudence, on the other hand, connotes wisdom and foresight, and taking a long-term view on issues. Those who are prudent avoid unnecessary risks, but they do not allow risk-aversion to lead them to harmful inaction.

The opposition-in-government is cautious, not prudent. They are allowing South Africa to collapse when they have the constitutional and democratic mandate to interpose themselves during the decline and thus protect their constituents from devastation.

The Campaign for Home Rule hopes to generate the necessary pressure – and provide the necessary arguments and constitutional basis – on exactly these well-meaning but risk-averse functionaries to roll up their sleeves, and get it done.

Organised communities and businesses are already doing it. The organised opposition is now well and truly without an excuse.

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

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Image by Andreas Göllner 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