OPINION | Western Cape autonomy becoming a dominant provincial political philosophy

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Supporters of the Cape Party marching recently (Supplied)
Supporters of the Cape Party marching recently (Supplied)

Phil Craig writes that in in just 24 months, greater provincial autonomy, including the option of outright independence, has gone from political obscurity to the dominant political philosophy of the Western Cape.

It is only at the very end of a Sherlock Holmes novel that a string of seemingly innocuous happenings is pulled together into what suddenly becomes an obvious truth. Until then, the readers are left trying to weave sense into isolated incidents that were presented to them bereft of sufficient context.

On 7 May 2021, and without any fanfare, AfriForum quietly announced that they were opening an office in the Western Cape via their website. Unobtrusively within their statement was the following sentence:

"Afriforum also strives for growing autonomy in this province and sees the decentralisation of power as a solution to the crisis in this country."

Considering that calls for outright independence are now an ever-present in the local political discourse, growing autonomy may seem relatively unremarkable. Perhaps that it now seems so unremarkable is, in itself, significant. However, the real story is how the balance of political forces seeking greater provincial autonomy has aligned without almost anyone noticing.

DA driving the narrative of greater provincial autonomy

On 2 March 2019, then-Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane launched the party's Western Cape provincial manifesto, which focused heavily on the devolution of power from central to the provincial government. 

At the launch, incoming premier Alan Winde said, "The only thing that is stopping us from delivering more in the Western Cape is the corrupt and broken national government.

"I will fight to devolve police powers and resources to the provincial government to establish a provincial police service that is modern, honest and professional."

And then:

"We have had enough of the ANC national government's rail service in our province. We don't have enough trains and they are never on time."

READ | Melanie Verwoerd: Wexit: Should the Western Cape become independent?

On 3 Sept 2020, the DA's National Policy Conference resolved the following:

"The DA at all levels adopt a pioneering, brave and activist approach to devolve more substantial powers from the national government sphere to well-run provincial and local governments with the demonstrated capacity to deliver services effectively. This includes, but is not limited to, devolving control over police, railways, ports, water storage, and electricity generation away from national government level. 

"Any devolution of powers away from the national sphere to provincial and local government spheres must be premised on the principle that 'funding follows service delivery', thereby ensuring that all delivery mandates assumed by provincial and local governments are adequately funded."

On 16 October 2020, following a legal battle with the DA, the national government gazetted the right for the City of Cape Town and other municipalities in good financial standing to generate and purchase their own electricity.

Broad political consensus formed organically

On 10 November 2020, Dr Corné Mulder announced at the Cape Town Press Club that the Freedom Front Plus (VF+) supported Cape Independence and would campaign for secession in the 2021 local elections.

On 21 November 2020, the DA in the Western Cape held its provincial congress, where it resolved to allow the local government to defy the law to protect the constitutional rights of Western Cape residents. The congress also decided to fix the issues with national legislation that prevented the Western Cape premier from calling provincial referenda as allowed in the Western Cape constitution.

On 5 December 2020, the Cape Coloured Congress (CCC), the political wing of the Gatvol Capetonians movement, was registered as a political party. The Gatvol Capetonians have publicly expressed their support for Cape Independence, as has Cape Coloured Congress leader Fadiel Adams.

On the same day, the Cape Party, the Freedom Front Plus, CapeXit, the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG) and the Bruin Bemagtiging Beweging jointly held the "Cloetesville March for Cape Independence" in Stellenbosch.

On 21 April 2021, the CCC registered 20% of the vote in the Delft by-election, the first it had contested, with the DA also retaining 50% of the vote. The following week, CapeXit announced that they now had more than 800 000 individual mandates from people calling for Cape Independence (almost 25% of all Western Cape voters).

On 5 May 2021, during a podcast to promote her new book, Helen Zille stated:

"One thing we support them on very fully (the independence movement), is the right to hold a referendum, and currently the premier does have the power to, theoretical power, to call a referendum, but only in terms of national legislation which does not exist, and so we are all in favour of having that national legislation tabled so that referenda can be held by provinces."

Substantial support for Cape Independence among voters

So where does all of this leave the plot of our provincial thriller?

Quietly, and without any noticeable drama, the DA, the VF+, the Cape Party, the CCC, AfriForum, and CapeXit, who, between them, account for somewhere in the region of 60% or more of all Western Cape voters, are now openly calling for significantly greater autonomy for the Western Cape.

Before opening their Western Cape branch, AfriForum polled its Western Cape members. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority supported Cape Independence. When Victory Research surveyed the Western Cape in August 2020 on behalf of the CIAG, the majority of DA, VF+, and Good voters polled all supported Cape Independence.

GOOD leadership is vehemently opposed to independence, which is somewhat awkward since 75% of their voters polled were in favour, and you cannot help but wonder whether direct competition with the Cape Coloured Congress will influence that opinion.

Having thus far remained conspicuously silent on the issue in the opposing camp are the ANC and the EFF. Between the two parties, they command just 33% of the provincial vote. Both are firmly in favour of an increasingly centralised government. 

Referendum legislation will be a catalyst

When the DA enacts their 2020 resolution to fix the national referendum legislation, this silence will be irrevocably broken and "greater provincial autonomy" will become a political battleground. The ANC will almost certainly drag its heels, but it ultimately cannot prevent the referendum legislation since the constitutional right for the premier to call a referendum already exists. It is just that the Referendums Act has never been updated to reflect the current Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional.

So the national government will have to allow referenda, and the provincial government is almost certainly going to call them. The DA is unlikely to support Cape Independence outright and has questioned the practicalities of how independence could realistically and non-violently be achieved or implemented, but it is going to be under immense pressure from its own voters and political allies in the province, all of whom do favour independence.

On the other hand, the ANC national government is going to have to decide whether to compromise on greater provincial autonomy for the Western Cape, which would be anathema to them, or to stand firm and risk backing the DA into the Cape Independence corner. 

READ | Opinion: Dear Melanie, Cape independence stinks of democracy not racism

Nationally, the DA continues to view its options through the lens of the South African Constitution. However, with their November 2020 resolution, the provincial DA have shown that they are more willing to weigh the law against moral imperatives rather than just blindly obeying it. AfriForum and the Freedom Front Plus favour a de-facto rather than a constitutional approach to greater autonomy, seizing power one bite at a time, whilst the independence groups openly endorse the option of a unilateral declaration of independence should the national government, in the event of a provincial democratic mandate for secession, be unwilling to negotiate. This is an action that in 2010, the International Court of Justice made clear was not prohibited under international law. 

In just 24 months, significantly greater provincial autonomy, including the option of outright independence, has gone from political obscurity to the dominant political philosophy of the Western Cape, and, remarkably, hardly anyone has noticed.

They will, soon.

- Phil Craig is co-founder of the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG).

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