South Africa

The reluctant hybrid federal state

Authored by: Nico Steytler

Routledge Handbook of Regionalism and Federalism

Print publication date:  May  2013
Online publication date:  July  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415566216
eBook ISBN: 9780203395974
Adobe ISBN: 9781136727627


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In his book, Comparing Federal Systems, Ronald Watts (1999a: 9) refers to South Africa under the category of ‘hybrids’ because although it has most of the characteristics of a federation, it retains some unitary features. The 1996 Constitution makes no reference to a federation, and the South African government has assiduously avoided the federalism label, asserting the unity of the country and down-playing its federal features. Yet, as Watts has observed, there are strong federal features in the form of provincial governments, although they function under central control. Added to the mix is a local government sphere, which further disperses state power. The hybrid nature of the country was the result of a political compromise to end white minority rule. As the political forces that gave rise to the negotiated compromise dissipate, the very federal elements are being questioned. It seems, however, unlikely that South Africa will lose its character as a quintessential hybrid federal state – neither federal nor central. However, for this hybrid system to work better, some of the centralized fiscal elements need to be softened.

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