Cape Independence Is Already Happening
Cape Independence is an appealing notion to a gatvol Western Cape public, it has become a national political issue with increasing support, but it won’t be happening in my lifetime. This is the potted summary of an article penned by Peter Bruce and published in the Sunday Times last week.
That Cape Independence is now regularly exercising the minds of journalists, politicians, and analysts from across the political spectrum, taking up column inches on almost a daily basis is testament to just how far the idea has already come. The battle lines are being drawn.
Bruce strikes a largely sympathetic tone to the idea, focussing his energy, much as the leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA) have done, on the practical considerations. I am anything but objective on this issue but would proffer that this is because the merits in principle of Cape Independence are so overwhelmingly self-evident that, other than naked racially based African nationalism, there is simply no purely theoretical argument against it.
For 30 years the majority of Western Cape voters have been unable to elect the government of their choosing, and, for the foreseeable future, this will not be changing. The government they didn’t elect, and cannot democratically remove, is destroying their country through incompetence, corruption, and the blind pursuit of an already discredited ideology. This includes legalised racial discrimination against the majority of them. What on earth would the theoretical argument against Cape Independence from the perspective of Western Cape voters even look like?
Lessons from Overseas
Bruce raises the referendum process and the economic viability of an independent Western Cape, he draws comparisons with Spain and Scotland, and he offers greater autonomy as a more realistic solution to the problems faced by the Western Cape people.
Observing how secession movements in other countries have fared is of course useful so long as proper perspective is maintained. No two struggles are identical, and each will chart its own course. The only accurate record of what transpires will be written after the fact not before. Bruce argues that Catalonia, the Basque country, and Scotland are all better off as part of Spain and the UK respectively. I am less au fait with Spain, but as for Scotland, whilst I support the right to Scottish independence, I also think it probably ill-considered.
Scotland however was a model example of sound democratic process. The parent state, in their case the UK, recognised growing sentiment for independence, called a democratic referendum, and agreed to honour the outcome. That Scotland ultimately voted to remain did not in any way diminish the process, quite the contrary.
When it comes to Catalonia, and in a warning that federalists may do well to heed, we should not forget that the current discontent was triggered in 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down sections of the ‘Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia’, which, in 2006, had been passed by the Catalan Parliament and ratified by Spain’s national assembly. Any deal made on Western Cape autonomy may well be just as fleeting.
Questions of Economic Viability
As for the economic viability of an independent Cape, I found Bruce’s comments very interesting. As a former news editor of the Financial Times, he certainly warrants respect.
That the Western Cape is a significant net contributor to the South African economy is not in doubt. The question Bruce raises is, would post independence migration of businesses out of the Western Cape and into South Africa change this? It is not the first time I have encountered this argument, but Bruce is by far the most credible of those to offer it up. The economists with whom we have consulted have been unanimous in their belief that not only is an independent Western Cape economically viable, but providing it adopted sensible economic policies, it would positively thrive.
It would be very interesting to hear an intelligent diversity of views on this subject. There are essentially two schools of thought, and whilst Bruce doesn’t definitively place himself into either camp, he certainly appears to be leaning towards one.
In one corner, proponents observe the status quo. South Africa is a bigger market than the Western Cape and therefore businesses will simply go where most of their bread is currently buttered. In the other corner, proponents picture an independent Western Cape in an entirely new context. One well known economist privately described an Independent Cape as a giant ‘Special Economic Zone(SEZ)’. Once freed from South Africa’s ideological and bureaucratic baggage, rather than bleed businesses, he reasoned, it would serve as a magnet to them. Bruce’s own comments on labour absorption in the province actually add credence to this view, and that is without considering semigration or the South African diaspora.
Control of Economic Policy Key
To thrive the Western Cape has one essential requirement: control over economic policy. It is here where any proposal for greater provincial autonomy which centres on who controls PRASA or SAPS is laid bare. Getting to work on a modern efficient transport system is not much help if you do not have a job, and crime cannot easily be controlled if 50% of the population live in poverty. If you cannot fix the economy, you do not have a lasting solution.
But can the Western Cape realistically wrest control over economic policy away from Pretoria? Without secession it seems extremely unlikely but is Cape Independence possible?
For supporters of Cape Independence there is good news; it has already started happening. The DA have already begun the legal process to prepare for a referendum. A provincial referendum which includes a question on Cape Independence is going to be held. Discussions around autonomy, federalism and independence are going to intensify. The ANC, who have thus far maintained almost complete silence on the issue, are going to get drawn into the debate. At that point, the inevitably crude arguments which will surface against independence, will also become its most powerful marketing tool.