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.
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.