IN A recent interview, Co-operative Governance Minister Sicelo Shiceka raised the question: “Do we need provinces?” and suggested that a definitive answer would be given by the government next March. I thought it significant that his ministry had once enjoyed the title of “constitutional and provincial affairs”. Perhaps its renaming is a harbinger of things to come.
The minister’s speculation, coupled with his demand that “nobody is expected to be out of tune” with the country and its president, brought to mind how central the provinces were to the Kempton Park negotiations, which led to the inauguration of democracy in SA, and how comprehensively the African National Congress (ANC) out-negotiated its opponents on this issue. This was due to both the balance of forces and the burden of our history.
The f-word during the negotiations was not a vulgar expletive, but the politically loaded idea of federalism. Democratic Party (DP) negotiator Colin Eglin — whose party’s central plank was the promotion of a federal dispersal of authority as an alternative to untrammelled majoritarianism — recalled how the Bantustan policy of the National Party (NP) “had given federalism a bad name”. He therefore, during negotiations, tiptoed around the topic by using code: “I tried to avoid using the word federalism in advancing my arguments, preferring to use the cumbersome but less repellent phrase, ‘constitutional decentralisation’” to advance the case for provincial powers in the new constitutional set-up .
Inkatha’s position at the negotiations was the opposite of the prevailing political wind: it wanted a federal SA to give it more power, given its lock on support in Natal. The ANC wanted a unitary state precisely to prevent that eventuality. The case, however, was never properly prosecuted since Inkatha was boycotting the negotiations in pursuance of an issue — the role and place of the k ing — which today, seems remote and obscure.
The NP, which during the negotiations still held the formal reins of power, made a confused and enfeebled fight for federalism. It understood it was likely to be knocked off its national perch of power in the elections, and reduced to a regional redoubt in the Western Cape. But its strategy was far more focused on dividing the spoils of office at a national level through power-sharing than in according the provinces significant, and original, powers. As the most reliable chronicler of the negotiations’ process, Patti Waldmeir described it: “After 45 years of ruling a highly centralised old South African state, the NP seemed to have little idea of what federalism meant, and only a weak inclination to fight for it.”
With the NP confused, Inkatha absent and the DP speaking in code, it was little wonder that the ANC prevailed. Indeed Waldmeir obtained an accurate assessment of the location of power in the new SA from a key negotiator: “Joe Slovo, speaking freely out of exhaustion and drink on the eve of the deal, insisted that the new state would be ‘not remotely a federation ... we’ve managed to give them devolution, without losing control’, he told me with considerable satisfaction.”
Slovo was to die within a year of the establishment of the new order; the NP received in Hermann Giliomee’s apt phrase a “prostitute’s funeral” after the 2004 elections; the Inkatha Freedom Party has been ousted from power in KwaZulu-Natal and the DP has morphed into the Democratic Alliance, but won control of the Western Cape .
But just how accurate and prescient Slovo’s boast has proven to be was on display in Cape Town this week. Provincial Premier Helen Zille — political boss of the only province in the hands of the opposition — was reduced to taking legal advice and writing a letter to the newspaper to explain that the Provincial Commissioner of the SAPS, Mzwandile Petros, refuses to meet with her and the provincial MEC for policing, Lennit Max. Given the agenda Zille had in mind for the meeting, including the allegation that the police had sexed-up the crime statistics in this crime-ravaged province, the commissioner’s coyness was understandable. But, of course, he is answerable and accountable to Pretoria, not Cape Town.
A glance at the exclusive powers which the constitution grants to the provinces yields a decidedly threadbare list. Schedule 5 grants it sole jurisdiction over such matters as abattoirs, ambulances, and culture and veterinary services. But in the areas of delivery, the provinces currently are the public’s interface with both hospitals and schools. Little wonder, then, that when he was minister of national education, Kader Asmal once remarked to me that, in comparison with his provincial counterparts, he felt “like a eunuch in a harem. I have the desire to act, but not the power.”
Interestingly, as the ANC moves to further centralise power, the DA is moving in the opposite direction. Its key parliamentary staff, including national strategist and MP Ryan Coetzee have taken leave of Parliament and relocated to the provincial government and the Office of the Premier.
The battle of the provinces — and the meaning and extent of the “f” word in our constitutional arrangements — is likely to be a key battleground arena over the next year. It remains to be seen whether the federalists are more successful in the next, perhaps final, round than they were at Kempton Park.
*Published Business Day 4 July 2009