/ 27 October 2022

The desire to improve people’s lives drives the move for Western Cape independence

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Cape Independence Advocacy Group co-founder argues that citizens have the right to self-determination.(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

South Africa is a failing state. Its increasingly dysfunctional national government can no longer fulfil many of the essential constitutional functions required of it. 

It cannot adequately maintain infrastructure such as the road and rail networks. It cannot provide sufficient electricity through its state-owned monopoly Eskom. It cannot keep its citizens free from physical harm. It cannot protect their property and, in some cases, doesn’t want to. It cannot maintain and defend its borders. By its own admission the state has been captured by corrupt individuals and leveraged for vast personal gain and it has been unable to regain control.

In such circumstances, civil society and the other spheres of government have a duty to step in and, to the best of their ability, shield citizens from the harm they are suffering. As is always the case, those most disadvantaged suffer the most. They are the most dependent upon the state and the least equipped to use private capital to insulate themselves from harm.

When civil society, political parties, business and the other spheres of government in the Western Cape set aside political and ideological differences to join forces to protect the people of the province from the national government, it would be quite remarkable to conclude that they are only doing so to protect their privilege. Yet this is exactly the conclusion that Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh somehow arrived at in his article DA flirts dangerously with Western Cape separatists.

Ideology not welfare at heart of opposition to devolution

Mpofu-Walsh explicitly rejects Helen Zille’s explanation that devolution is a means by which to provide immunity from the failing national state, instead describing the formation of the group as a “raw power play”. Remarkably, he then suggests that greater centralisation of power is the answer.

This illuminates the true purpose of Mpofu-Walsh’s crocodile tears.

In contemporary politics, the political centre wishes to vest as much power as is practically possible with, or as close as possible to, the people. Government should be small and citizens granted as much personal freedom as is practical. This is the liberalism with which the Western Cape has long been associated. This is why it perpetually elects the Democratic Alliance and not the ANC, and why parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) struggle to gain any foothold in the province. In turn, that has led to the Western Cape outperforming the rest of South Africa by virtually every objective measure.

In contrast, at both political extremes (right or left) politicians want to vest as much power as possible in the government as opposed to the people so that the government can control the populace and force its ideology upon them. This is the politics of the ANC and the EFF. Before them, it was the politics of the National Party, Soviet communism, and Nazi fascism. The state knows best.

Devolution is anathema to Mpofu-Walsh and inconveniences such as the world’s second-highest murder rate or its highest unemployment rate cannot be allowed to deflect from his own “cultural revolution”. Human suffering has all too often been an acceptable price for those demanding central state control.

People have a right to determine their own destiny

But the world is changing. At the turn of the 20th century the power of the state was sacrosanct while its citizens were merely pawns in somebody else’s chess game. By the century’s end, the doctrine of self-determination had been established as a fundamental human right that was imposed upon states by international law, and which elevated the interests of people above that of states.

In 2014 the UN described the contemporary right to self-determination: “In its essence, the right of self-determination means that individuals and peoples should be in control of their destinies and should be able to live out their identities, whether within the boundaries of existing states or through independence. More than an outcome, self-determination should be seen as a process subject to revision and adjustment, and its outcome must correspond to the free and voluntary choice of the peoples concerned within a framework of human rights protection and non-discrimination. Self-determination cannot be understood as a one-time choice, nor does it extinguish with lapse of time because like the rights to life, freedom and identity, it is too fundamental to be waived.”

Why just the Western Cape?

Mpofu-Walsh questions why the group is seeking devolution for the Western Cape alone.

In the run-up to the 2021 local government elections, Tito Mboweni and Zille engaged each other on Twitter. Zille tweeted, “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.”

The answer to Mpofu-Walsh’s question is therefore that it isn’t. The terms of reference for the group established a dual purpose which echoes the sentiments in Zille’s tweet.

The majority of Western Cape voters have never once voted ANC, the political parties in the group hold the balance of political power within the province, and they can (and must) use that power to protect the people who live there.

In doing so, however, they also establish a vital precedent for the rest of South Africa. Mpofu-Walsh recognises this and states: “Devolution is no moderate middle ground. It would remake the state as we know it.” 

He is 100% correct, but, given that the state is so obviously failing, why on earth would we not want to remake it? Critically, the right to self-determination means that the national government is not the sole custodian of this decision.

Surely the correct question to ask is whether devolution will deliver better policing, better transport, will it help create jobs and will it create a more reliable electricity supply? Will it improve the lives of ordinary citizens, yes, or no? 

Phil Craig is co-founder of the Cape Independence Advocacy Group

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.