OPINION | Cape independence: Dear DA, it is time to give voters a referendum

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The writer argues that the DA needs to be public about its position on Cape independence.
The writer argues that the DA needs to be public about its position on Cape independence.

Following an interview that DA leader John Steenhuisen had with Maroela Media over Cape independence, Phil Craig argues the party needs to state publicly what its views are on independence so that voters can make up their minds.

DA leader John Steenhuisen recently spoke to Maroela Media about Cape independence and his frustrations that the independence movement is challenging rather than supporting the DA in its quest for the greater devolution of power to provinces.

On behalf of the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG), I would like to formally respond to Steenhuisen.

First, let us find common ground. We agree with the DA that the centralisation of power in a national ANC government has been a disaster for South Africa, and one in which the people of the Western Cape have not been spared.

We are not opposed to the measures the DA are trying to put in place to increase provincial power, we are supportive of them, and have publicly applauded many of its efforts.

We also agree that, on balance, the DA has done a good job running the Western Cape, and this has been reflected both in comparative provincial statistics, and in the voting behaviour of the Western Cape electorate.

Beyond that, there seems to be a disconnect between the political realities of the independence movement and how they are perceived by the DA's leader. To put it bluntly, Steenhuisen wants to have his cake and eat it.

Opposing Cape independence is a risk for the DA

The article itself is testimony to the fact the DA is taking the independence movement seriously, and aware that it poses a significant threat to its outright provincial majority in the Western Cape.

The CIAG commissioned a poll in August 2020, and found 53% of pollsters, who indicated they were DA voters in the Western Cape, favoured secession, while 64% favoured a referendum on independence. It also found should the DA oppose independence, it would indeed lose its majority since a substantial number of DA voters stated they would vote for another party in such a scenario.

To add a little extra spice to the pot, in November 2020, the Western Cape DA resolved to fix the referendum legislation. What do you suppose the majority of DA members supporting the motion wanted?

It is of course totally logical for the people of the Western Cape to want independence.

The majority of them have never voted for the ANC, yet they have seen them elected as the national government at every single election regardless. 

The great irony here is the only way a DA voter can get a national DA government is in an independent Cape. As one politician wryly said to me, in the Western Cape, even when they wanted to, the DA could not get you a cigarette or a beer.

Two requests - debate and democracy

The CIAG is not politically naïve. Accordingly, it has never asked the DA to publicly support Cape independence. We have only ever pushed the DA on two points.

First, we have asked the party to allow the debate on independence to take place openly within its ranks. Some months ago, the party gave us an assurance that it would actively initiate the debate within Western Cape party structures but since then has never made good on this promise. DA MPs report that they still cannot speak freely on the subject.

Second, we asked the DA to agree to honour the democratic wishes of the people of the Western Cape, whatever they may be. They have been unwilling to give this assurance.

The CIAG is not aligned to any specific political party. On the contrary, we are a non-partisan single-issue organisation who draws support from right across the political spectrum.

Our mandate is to deliver Cape independence, and in truth, as the party of provincial government, and the party for whom the majority of our supporters vote, the DA should potentially be our biggest ally. For us to actively campaign against the DA would be an act of last resort, but we can only play the cards we are dealt.

Steenhuisen refers to the threat of campaigning against the DA to bring the party below 50% in order to force a referendum on independence. This is indeed a threat we have conditionally made, albeit privately rather than publicly, but in revealing it Steenhuisen is only telling half of the story.

There are only three positions the DA can hold on Cape independence; it is either in favour of it, it is neutral on it, or it opposes the idea.

The CIAG made it clear to the DA that should it directly oppose independence, it will be placing itself directly between our organisation and its goals. Under such circumstances, we would have no choice but to go through the party and that would by necessity mean working to bring the DA under 50% in the Western Cape.

On the other hand, if the DA remains neutral on the issue and allows the debate to unfold, while agreeing to respect the democratic wishes of the Western Cape electorate, we can walk a path together, fighting for greater powers for the Western Cape. A strong and vibrant independence movement will only strengthen the DA's hand.

Establishing the DA's position on independence

So what is the DA's position? Well, here is the problem, it depends entirely on who you speak to.

Officially, but not publicly, we have been told the DA is not in principle opposed to Cape independence. That would certainly be reinforced by the tone of Steenhuisen's interview.

Two days previously, however, Premier Alan Winde publicly stated he is opposed to independence and holding a referendum. He even went so far as to infer that DA voters, who support independence, should vote for the Cape Party, exactly the actions his own party leader is arguing against. 

Does the DA then want to have its cake or to eat it?

If it is indeed neutral on independence, and not opposed in principle, then it must say so unequivocally. Initiate or at least allow the independence debate to play out within DA structures and give an assurance to residents of the Western Cape that it will call a referendum should there be sufficient support. Then please let the premier know.

If the DA is not willing to discuss independence in any meaningful way, and it is not willing to call a referendum, then it is against independence and must accept that those who strongly believe in the idea will vote for a party who does support it. That will include the CIAG.

It is also important to recognise that federalism and independence are not the same thing. Federalism is a compromise that will still leave the ANC in charge of economic policy. In any event, it is highly unlikely that the DA can actually deliver federalism. In many ways, it is a bigger ask than independence. It requires ANC and EFF consent, whereas, in the final reckoning, independence requires international support instead. Which is more likely?

Why then would the DA leader think the promise of trying to obtain more federal autonomy would buy his party a free pass for its unwillingness to use the powers it already constitutionally holds?

Steenhuisen mentions Quebec and how it still does not have independence. May I remind him, as with Scotland, it was given a referendum, it simply voted remain. That is all we are asking for too.

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

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