How can you oppose federalism?


We live in a relatively messed up time, where failure is generally considered an unacceptable outcome. But failure builds character and teaches lessons. No one needs to learn hard lessons more urgently than South Africa’s provinces and especially its collapsed municipalities. Federalism is the medicine for this.

One of the arguments put forward during the transition period in 1994 as to why South Africa should be centralized was that certain areas were too poor to provide effective governance, requiring subsidisation. This unfortunate argument ignored the fact that there is nothing wrong with starting from zero and building up. However, the argument succeeded, and we finally accepted a centralized, but nevertheless federal, dispensation.

Thirty years later, only the naive and dishonest among us still believe that centralization is a viable route to a prosperous future. In light of their endless lack of willingness to properly manage scarce taxpayer resources, South Africa’s provinces and municipalities must be weaned from Pretoria.

It is true that such a breakup will be painful. But it is necessary and will ultimately be good for the wider democracy, especially at the municipal level. Infusing the spirit of federalism into our formally federal Constitution is indeed not only about authority, but also about responsibility.

Local communities must stop allowing their mayors and councilors to point to Pretoria and say “it’s not my problem”. Only local residents can make it the local government’s problem. The shifting of blame isn’t impressive, and it doesn’t help anyone either. The DA thinks it is inspiring people when it points the finger at the ANC central government when people criticize DA municipalities for addressing serious local issues. The reality is that it looks pathetic.

Rather, opposition governments should just do what needs to be done – even if the central government is formally “responsible” for that function. What is more impressive? The City of Cape Town complaining that the SAPS fails to seize and destroy firearms during raids in Khayelitsha, or the city’s own law enforcement officers who only do it themselves out of necessity?

Of course, the issue of funding will always arise. However, conscientious citizens should never allow politicians this loophole. When the Solidarity Movement decided that it wanted a world-class African technical college, they raised funds for it and collected R300 million to build Sol-Tech. When South African mining companies needed electricity before the establishment of Eskom, they set up their own power utilities.

In other words: stop complaining and get your point across. But when something is truly unaffordable, it is unfortunately a reality. For example, if a municipality simply cannot afford to build a new sports stadium, it should not be allowed to go begging in Pretoria. The municipality must unite its community and build what it can afford.

That stadium will belong to the community — something he was responsible for and can take ownership of. If this is not an option, the municipality must postpone matters and start doing things differently so that it can afford a new stadium in the future. If a stadium is simply demolished by the central government, the municipality has not only lost part of its responsibility towards its own community, but if it could not afford to build the stadium, it probably will not be able to afford to build it in to stand.

Corruption and mismanagement

It is also not an accident, or a determined result of history, that municipalities today largely cannot afford things. If they weren’t hotbeds of corruption or mismanagement, local businesses wouldn’t have fled like that. In other words, they must regain the trust of business enterprises and attract entrepreneurship, thereby empowering themselves.

Singapore and Hong Kong were not rich from the start. They implemented policies that were attractive to domestic and international trade, and exuded competence and professionalism every step of the way. This can be true for any South African municipality or province that takes its responsibility towards its people seriously enough.

Municipalities in particular must always refer to the Constitution — not legislation — when determining their own responsibility. Indeed, article 152(1) of the Constitution states that the promotion of a “safe” environment and “social and economic development”, but above all “democratic and accountable government for local communities”, are key functions of local government.

Section 151(4) states again that the central or provincial governments “may not compromise or impede a municipality’s ability or right to exercise its powers or perform its functions”. Any legislation that seemingly prohibits municipalities from ensuring safety and security or the community and the economy is unconstitutional.

Carrying out constitutional directives must always outweigh carrying out the partisan directives of ANC comrades in parliament. The Constitution and the local voters are the sources of a municipality’s authority, not the parliament and certainly not the central executive authority.

Municipalities must of course comply with national and provincial legislation that is congruent with the Constitution. Provinces have less room for action in the written Constitution, but they can rely on constitutional principles such as subsidiarity to achieve the same. Other principles of political governance, such as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, the right of interposition and the right to annul, can also be useful to conscientious municipal and provincial governments who want to get things done.

Federalism will no doubt mean short-term pain for municipal and provincial governments that have grown accustomed to misbehavior and corruption. However, if communities hold their local representatives accountable in the long term, federalism will turn out to be just what the doctor prescribed for a prosperous future.