/ 4 February 2022

Self-determination is the issue of the year in the Western Cape

Landscape Of The Knersvlakte Region, Being Part Of The Succulent Karoo And Typically Covered With Patches Of Quartz Gravel, Western Cape, In The Background The Maskam Mountain As Part Of The Matzikama Massif, Namaqualand, South Africa
The poor stewardship of the planet’s resources means countries must commit to restoring at least one billion hectares of degraded land in the next decade, says the United Nations Environment Programme

The dynamics of Western Cape politics have fundamentally changed over the last two years. Commentators analysing the region have often found themselves at sixes and sevens. There has been a definite move towards greater provincial autonomy, but there is very limited empirical data through which to quantify the change, and the data that does exist can appear contradictory.

Following an announcement by the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG) in the run-up to the local government elections that the Democratic Alliance (DA) and seven other parties were willing in principle to support a referendum on Cape independence, secession became a hot topic. Polling by Victory Research in July 2021 showed that 46% of Western Cape voters supported the idea of Cape independence, yet in the November elections only 0.5% of voters cast their vote for the Cape Independence Party (CIP).

This has led some to declare Cape independence dead in the water.  In truth, in 2022, it is likely to gain greater prominence than ever before.

Polling had always indicated that very few independence supporters intended to vote for the CIP.  Most secessionists are not radical libertarians, they just want efficient government, and to be governed by the party they elect. Polling had suggested that 72% of them would in fact cast their vote for the DA and, broadly speaking, this is exactly what happened. Also as predicted, the other two openly secessionist parties, the Freedom Front Plus and the Cape Coloured Congress, both did very well.

Devolutionists versus secessionists 

Many commentators don’t understand the political space around Western Cape autonomy, of which the Cape independence movement forms just a part. In particular, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the relationship between devolutionists and secessionists. Many mistakenly assume the relationship between devolution and secession to be competitive. In reality it is symbiotic and support for either is rarely mutually exclusive.

Self-determination is the thread that binds them. An excellent demonstration of this was a tweet by Helen Zille in the run-up to the local elections, directed at ex-Finance Minister Tito Mboweni in response to his call for the CIAG, who were promoting Cape independence, to be “quickly dealt with”: “Tito, the ANC destroys every part of SA it governs. So, the ANC drives secessionism. The DA has always supported Federalism and will continue driving devolution of power and regional autonomy. Where people don’t vote for ANC, they don’t deserve to live under a failed state.”

Self-determination part of DA’s identity

Zille didn’t use the words “self-determination”, but this is precisely what she was referring to.

In her tweet, Zille draws a clear line between being able to make political choices at a regional level, and the inherent injustice of forcing people to perpetually bear the consequences of a political regime for which the majority have never voted. In other words, people must be able to determine how they wish to be governed for themselves. Federalism by its very nature is designed to provide a significant degree of self-determination.

Her comments were in line with DA policy. At a national, provincial, and municipal level the DA is actively driving a strong devolution agenda. In the Western Cape they want control of the police, electricity generation, water, transport and ports. At one stage taxation was added to the list, while race-based policy is another bone of contention.

In June 2021, the DA announced the introduction of the Electoral Commission Amendment Act. The Act’s purpose is to enable premiers to call provincial referendums. If the bill is passed, the Western Cape electorate is going to be formally consulted on a range of significant issues. Why? Self-determination. To allow the Western Cape people to make choices for themselves at a provincial level.

Internal vs external self-determination

The reality is that the DA has made self-determination a fundamental component of their identity. They are not arguing for the secession of the Western Cape, but for self-determination within the confines of a federal South Africa. They want what is known as “internal self-determination”.

The Cape independence movement, including the CIAG, as well as other organisations such as the Freedom Front Plus, CapeXit, Cape Coloured Congress and the CIP are pursuing outright independence. They propose this on the basis of something called “remedial secession”.

Remedial secession occurs where a territory can establish, to the satisfaction of its international peers, that it is impossible to enjoy “internal self-determination” within the confines of the existing state, and that the only way the territory can exercise its right to self-determination is by seceding. Once independent, it now has “external self-determination”, and the act of secession has remedied the previous denial of the territory’s rights.

The differences between devolution and secessionists are therefore at this point entirely moot. Both camps wish to see internal self-determination vigorously pursued, albeit that secessionist will be less bothered by failure. Their current purposes are almost completely aligned.

Basis for remedial secession depends on ANC response

Whether they subsequently diverge remains to be seen. The ANC will be integral to what happens next.

If the ANC national government grants meaningful internal self-determination to the Western Cape, as the DA provincial government is actively calling for it to do, then the grounds for remedial secession will not exist. On the other hand, if the ANC denies the Western Cape internal self-determination, not only will a sound basis for remedial secession have been established, but the DA will be forced to choose between centralised racial socialism, or support independence (which the majority of its Western Cape voters already favour).

Thus far, the ANC has strengthened the secessionists’ hand. In September 2021, when the devolution of policing was debated in the National Council of Provinces, Police Minister Bheki Cele was adamant that not only were police powers not going to be devolved, but that even the existing devolved powers were going to be reduced.

“The topic of the devolution of SAPS must be weakened and paralysed,” he said. “The rogue conduct by certain metros, that create parallel structures of law enforcement aimed at undermining the Constitution, cannot be left unchallenged.”

In other words, the polar opposite of self-determination.

DA to up ante in 2022

Self-determination is going to be the political battleground of 2022, and not just for the Western Cape, although that is where the main battle will take place. In the Western Cape the DA, with the support of the many other parties who also support devolution, hold political and legislative power. Collectively they have the overwhelming support of the provincial populace.

Like never before, they are going to use that power to leverage increased autonomy for the Western Cape. Until now, the DA have largely played nicely and avoided seeking out direct confrontation with the national government over devolution. We probably won’t be saying that at the end of 2022.

Expect fireworks.