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Is the government system of South Africa unitary or federal?

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While South Africa's governing structures provide the formal trappings, or appearances, of federalism, the fact of the matter is that the Republic of South Africa is more unitary than federal in its daily operations. The Republic of South Africa, as it is formally known, is considered a “constitutional democracy,” with power ostensibly devolved to the myriad provinces that collectively comprise the nation. Additionally, each province, as with the individual states that comprise the United States of America, has a series of local governments that represent cities and towns throughout the country. The dominant role of the central government in Pretoria, the nation’s capital, however, is clearly evident in the manner in which that government passes and implements laws and decrees. Federalism involves the devolution of a fair amount of power from the center to the individual states or provinces, while retaining its ultimate control over broad issues of economic and foreign policies.

The current political system in South Africa is, not surprisingly, a product of the nation’s history. Ruled for most of its modern history by a small minority of descendants of Dutch (known as Afrikaners) and, to lesser extents, German and British colonialists, white domination over the much large black majority was institutionalized as an “apartheid” system of government, with that large majority deliberately marginalized and kept subservient through the well-trained and equipped military and intelligence services that enforced this brutal system. With the abolishment of “apartheid,” and the emergence of a majority black government in the mid-1990s, the African National Congress, which had been the largest and most effective political and military force opposing white rule, and which was led by the charismatic and long-time political prisoner Nelson Mandela, was catapulted into power in the 1994 elections. The ANC’s strength would ensure its place atop South Africa’s political system for the years that have followed.

South Africa is a democracy, but the strength of the ANC remains formidable, and it is that party that controls provincial governments throughout the country. The white population of South Africa constitutes less than ten percent of the nation’s population, and the ANC, as the dominant political party, exerts tremendous influence at the federal, provincial and local levels, with the notable exception of Orania, a town populated primarily and run by Afrikaners. While the provincial and local political systems enjoy some autonomy on a limited number of issues, there is no question that political power in South Africa is concentrated in Pretoria, and that the African National Congress continues to enjoy enormous power there. It is fair, therefore, the conclude that South Africa is far more of a unitary than a federal system.

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