ANTHONY BUTLER: Many fantasies about changing SA’s provincial layout
BL PREMIUM 15 APRIL 2021
SA is a unitary state rather than a federation. We elect provincial parliaments with great solemnity, and blue light convoys choke the streets of our provincial capitals, but provinces do not much pass laws, levy taxes or control their own budgets. Policy is made at the centre and provinces are hooked up to a drip-feed of national resources.
Fantasies circulate about how this might change. Well-meaning development specialists say we can abolish provinces altogether. Secessionists say provinces can simply opt out of the republic. A larger group of dreamers in the ANC yearn for the day when “certain provinces” can be merged with their neighbours.
None of this will happen, because vast vested interests are now embedded in our system of provincial government. The provinces have also effectively accommodated the cultural and ethnic peculiarities of different regions within a single system of government.
The trouble is that this system is a brake on economic development. All nine provinces are run in accordance with a single legislative and regulatory template, designed primarily to save the weaker provinces from collapse.
Meanwhile, two provinces, Gauteng and Western Cape, contribute half of national GDP and host half of registered income taxpayers. They enjoy younger and better educated populations and deliver public services with greater effect.
It is not polite to say so, but seven of the provinces are poorly run, in part because of their historical legacies, such as the former bantustans. The slowest hold back the fastest in all societies.
Some countries have resorted to “asymmetric federalism”, in which the constituent units of a federation enjoy different powers, in line with their capabilities and needs. Unitary systems such as ours can implement asymmetrical devolution, in which variable powers are delegated by the national government to particular provinces and cities on a qualified and reversible basis.
SA’s Brics partners China, India, and Russia have asymmetric mechanisms. China’s provinces, autonomous regions and special administrative regions have functions tailored to their practical developmental needs, as well as to their political circumstances. India, for its part, has experimented for decades with unique arrangements for subnational regions.
Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club this week, Western Cape premier Alan Winde argued that we need greater provincial powers in SA. He noted that his province has similar needs and challenges to Gauteng’s.
These two provinces have already forged ahead in the implementation of health and education policies, and in fields such as investment promotion. When it comes to housing, the government is using forms of conditionality that empower capable municipalities to take greater control.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that fast-growing and innovative provinces can bring benefits to their neighbours. Gauteng and the Western Cape, however, both need fresh powers to create integrated transport systems out of today’s multilevel chaos.
While there are serious risks that provincial police services would be captured by shady politicians, provinces that can run their own law-and-order systems effectively should not be stopped from doing so.
In the energy and broader infrastructure sectors, national governance frameworks appropriate to the coal economy of the 20th century need to be updated for the technologies of a more decentralised world.
Some caution is in order: the special powers delegated to the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain, for example, or to Scotland in the UK, have solved problems but created others. Self-government can easily tip into ethnic separatism.
Moreover, a fresh intergovernmental contract would have to accompany asymmetric devolution in SA. The gains to autonomous and fast-growing provinces would need to be transparently shared with their less advantaged counterparts.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.