DA leader, John Steenhuisen 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 John.
Firstly, 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 their efforts.
We also agree that, on balance, the DA have done a good job running the Western Cape, and that 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, John 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 that the DA are taking the independence movement seriously, and aware that it poses a significant threat to their outright provincial majority in the Western Cape.
The CIAG commissioned a poll in August 2020, and the poll found that 53% of DA voters in the Western Cape favoured secession and 64% favoured a referendum on independence. It also found that should the DA oppose independence they would indeed lose their majority, since a substantial number of DA voters stated that 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. That government then forces policies on them they do not agree with including racially discriminating against the majority of them. It does not matter how much Western Cape voters hate the government; they just can’t vote it out. Not now, and not for the foreseeable future, if ever. In short, they do not have functional democracy.
The great irony here is that 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 couldn’t get you a cigarette or a beer.
Two requests – Debate and democracy
The CIAG is not politically naive. Accordingly, it has never asked the DA to publicly support Cape Independence. We have only ever pushed the DA on two points.
Firstly, we have asked them to allow the debate on independence to take place openly within their own party. Some months ago, they gave us an assurance that they would actively initiate the debate within the Western Cape party structures but they never made good on this promise. DA MPs report that they still cannot speak freely on the subject.
Secondly, we asked them 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. To 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.
John refers to the threat of campaigning against the DA to bring them below 50%, in order to force a referendum on independence. This is indeed a threat we have conditionally made, albeit privately to them rather than publicly, but in revealing it John is only telling half of the story.
There are only three positions the DA can hold on Cape independence, they are either in favour of it, they are neutral on it, or they oppose the idea.
The CIAG made it clear to the DA that should they directly oppose independence that they will be placing themselves directly between our organisation and its goals. Under such circumstances we would have no choice but to go through them and that would by necessity mean working to bring them under 50% in the Western Cape.
On the other hand, if the DA remains neutral on the issue and allows the debate to unfold, whilst 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 upon who you speak to.
Officially, but not publicly, we have been told that the DA is not in principle opposed to Cape independence. That would certainly be reinforced by the tone of John’s interview. Two days previously, however, Alan Winde was publicly stating he is opposed to independence and he is opposed to 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. Two months before that, the provincial party to whom he answers resolved to fix the referendum legislation.
Does the DA then want to have its cake or to eat it?
If the DA 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 the DA structures and give an assurance to the Western Cape people that it will honour their democratic wishes by calling a referendum should there be sufficient support. Then please let the premier know.
If the DA isn’t willing to discuss independence in any meaningful way, and it isn’t willing to call a referendum regardless of what the Western Cape people want, then it is against independence whatever it says, and it must accept that those people who strongly believe in the idea are going to 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, powers that the Western Cape electorate entrusted to them, powers that could literally save the Western Cape, the power to call a people’s referendum?
John mentions Quebec and how they still don’t have independence. May I remind him, as with Scotland, they were given a referendum, they simply voted remain. That is all we are asking for too.
This article was first published in Afrikaans by Maroela Media and in English by News24