Liberals always preferred a federal to a unitary state

John Kane-Berman says neither the IRR nor any other liberal institution ever promoted a centralised state

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.

In pursuit of its fantasy the NP forcibly removed between two and three million black people from the “white” area, arrested millions upon millions under the pass laws, and tried to strip all black Africans of their South African citizenship.

Some supporters of the policy depicted it as akin to British decolonisation. It was nothing of the sort. When the British imperialists left India and their African possessions, they went home and handed power to locals. The NP’s plan was to stay put on 87% of the country and remove as many blacks as they possibly could. This was not decolonisation but ethnic cleansing.

The plan was abandoned in the mid-1980s for the simple reason that PW Botha recognized that it was unworkable and unenforceable. Only then did the NP wake up to the advantages of proper federalism. But it was too late.

The African National Congress (ANC), having seen how a centralised state had worked to the advantage of the NP, was not about to abandon that prize. Federalism was one of the casualties of the ANC’s ruthlessness during the negotiations leading up to the 1994 election.

As for “universal franchise”, even the NP recognized that nothing but such a franchise was politically saleable, which was why the Liberal and Progressive parties had earlier abandoned their qualified franchise proposals.

Gradual extension of the franchise from the Victorian era onwards was one of the achievements in English constitutional history. Afrikaner nationalists in South Africa did the opposite. Instead of gradually extending the limited Cape coloured franchise agreed upon in 1910, they removed it altogether.

Contrary to what Mr Klok thinks, the IRR was never naïve enough to believe that majority rule would automatically ensure good governance. We pointed out that revolutions sometimes produced worse governments than the ones they replaced.

True liberals always distrust power, which is why they insist on as many checks and balances as possible, federalism among them. It is pity that the Afrikaner nationalists, and their many English-speaking fellow-travellers, woke up so late, preferring to put their faith in fantasy policies backed by bannings, banishment, detentions, and police brutality.

As liberals predicted all along, these efforts would in the end prove futile. If you disdain gradualist, pragmatic, and moderate solutions, you end up with the revolutionary ideology that is now in power in this country.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.