OPINION | Phil Craig: The battle for Western Cape devolution - opening salvos fired

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Western Cape Premier Alan Winde.
Western Cape Premier Alan Winde.
Brenton Geach/Gallo Images

The recent poll conducted by Victory Research showed that 46% of Western Cape voters no longer wanted South Africa to be "one sovereign democratic state", writes Phil Craig.


The first public skirmish between the DA and the ANC over the devolution of powers to the Western Cape took place earlier this month in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).

Devolution is a topic that will shortly dominate South African politics with the DA's Electoral Commission Amendments Act currently before Parliament. The Act will open the way for provincial referendums to be called by premiers.

Premier Alan Winde purportedly squared off against Minister of Police Bheki Cele over policing powers. Policing is a euphemism. Increased provincial control of policing is a stalking horse for the federal ambitions of the DA, and its subsequent rejection of a statement of intent by the ANC.

The debate was never going to go any other way, and what was said was always going to be far more meaningful than the outcome. Policing remains firmly under the control of the ANC national government.

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On the continuum of devolved powers, the provincial government wanting to upgrade its authority over police from oversight to control of SAPS in the province is towards the least controversial end. The Western Cape outperforms South Africa's other eight provinces in just about every measure except one, crime. Gang violence in the Cape Flats is the reason, which is a problem unique to the Western Cape, and which self-evidently requires a localised response. There are far more radical proposals in the current political discourse, with Cape Independence undoubtedly the elephant in this room.

Somewhat ironically, both men oppose secession, and it was entirely possible given his public persona, that Alan Winde thought he could reason his way to agreement with the ANC. 

I once worked with a quite brilliant psychologist whose greatest weapon was the judicious wielding of just four words, "Well now you know". 

Reason vs Rhetoric

The DA's argument was steeped in reason. 

Crime was a major problem. The National Commissioner of Police has publicly stated that SAPS can no longer keep the people safe. Poor communities are bearing the brunt of these failures. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over whilst expecting a different result. Let's work together to produce a different outcome. Winde concluded with an appeal for a modest pilot project generously offering; "If it succeeds you can take the credit, if it fails, I will take the blame".

In framing his appeal, however, Winde had already given the game away. The DA in the Western Cape, and the Western Cape government has consistently espoused the principle of federalism and called for the devolution of power to provinces. Government must be brought closer to the people. This will improve accountability. To prevent South Africa becoming a failed state it must now implement devolution.

The ANC response, spearheaded by Minister of Police Bheki Cele, was rhetoric over reason.

This was the politics of power designed to "undermine the progressive gains of our glorious movement". Rather than devolve more policing powers, Cele intended to remove what little the Western Cape already had. The "rogue conduct" of certain metros in "creating parallel structures of law enforcement aimed at undermining the Constitution" would not be tolerated. Instead, SAPS would continue to follow the "strategic policy direction led by our capable(sic) ruling party". 

ANC MP Shahidabibi Shaik then accused the DA of using liberal and federal ideas to protect the rights of minorities, emphatically stating that South Africa "remained one sovereign democratic state". 

And there was the elephant once again.

Federalism is an Olive Branch

The recent poll conducted by Victory Research showed that 46% of Western Cape voters polled no longer wanted South Africa to be "one sovereign democratic state". 58% of them, a clear majority, support a referendum being called to allow the people of the Western Cape to decide for themselves. Among DA voters polled, the numbers were substantially higher at 54% and 65% respectively.

Those who watched Winde's speech cannot fail to have observed his deep and genuine desire to reach across the aisle. Cele is not a shrewd politician, and what was undoubtedly driving Winde's palatable desperation to secure some compromise from the ANC seemingly passed Cele by altogether. Winde is a moderate.

Cele waived away Winde's proposals with disdain saying they amounted to "Federalism". Is he really unaware that federalism is the olive branch being offered by Winde and those inside the DA sympathetic to him, because Winde knows what alternative is coming?

Shortly after the local government elections, the DA's Electoral Commission Amendment Act will come before committee. Sources in Parliament have confirmed that the public response during the comments stage was overwhelming in both volume and support. If the Bill is passed, and given that it is simply correcting defective legislation which is unconstitutional, it is hard to imagine how it can not be, then the devolution stakes will be raised significantly.

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The DA plan to call referendums on many issues besides just policing, and the purpose of each will be to obtain a democratic mandate from the Western Cape electorate to take power away from central government. Inevitably Cape Independence will be one of these issues and Winde knows it. 

Tellingly, unlike the rest of his party, Winde has steadfastly refused to even speak to our organisation, the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG), and yet he has privately complained that we are blackmailing him into calling a referendum on independence. We have made no secret of our intention to use political pressure into forcing him to do just that, but if he isn't speaking to us then that pressure is only coming from one place, within his own party. 

Terms of Engagement Set

So, the stage is set for a far bigger conflict and after this debate we can see more clearly the terms of engagement.

The DA will be arguing that devolution of power is an essential requirement to avoid South Africa becoming a failed state, and they will be using constitutionally empowered provincial democratic mandates as their source of authority.

The ANC will be promoting ethnic nationalism and majoritarianism, their struggle history, and the defence of their "glorious movement" to cling on to de-facto power in the Western Cape. This despite only having 28.6% of the provincial vote and being reviled by the provincial democratic majority.

The battle has begun.

Phil Craig is a co-founder and spokesperson for the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG).  

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