Provincial Referendums: Political and Ideological Armageddon

PRESS ARTICLE: Debate over What Referendum Questions the DA should ask, Why, and How the ANC are Likely to React

I am responding to an enjoyable article written by Richard Wilkinson in the Rational Standard titled ‘Provincial Referendums: Some Strategic Considerations”.

In his article Richard covered a number of points, including the constitutional and legislative background to the DA’s announcement last week that it was seeking to change the Referendums Act so that Provincial Premiers could call provincial referendums.

In my response I would like to discuss three of these points: How the ANC might react, what questions should be asked in a provincial referendum, and whether or not to directly target Cape Independence.

How the ANC might react

Once the DA introduces their Private Members Bill in parliament, the ANC will be forced to make a choice. It can either just let the legislation pass, it can vote down the legislation even though this would, in effect, be unconstitutional, or it can attempt to amend the constitution to remove the right instead.

Whilst Richard does not make any specific predictions, it is clear he thinks the ANC quietly letting the legislation pass is an unlikely scenario. I am not so sure.

In the last eighteen months Cape Independence has become a hot political topic. It has received significant media coverage, it has been raised in the provincial parliament, a major political party (the Freedom Front Plus) has announced it supports independence, independent polling has shown that more than one third of Western Cape voters support independence, and 25% of Western Cape voters have signed a mandate with CapeXit. Now the DA have made their announcement on provincial referendums.

How have the ANC responded so far? To the best of my knowledge, although I am reliably informed that in private Cape Independence was on the NEC agenda last year, they haven’t uttered one single word on the subject publicly. Compare this to their almost endless references and statements in support of Palestinian self-determination and a two-state solution. It is absolutely clear that the ANC does not want to get drawn into any discussion on the subject of Cape Independence.

Given their conduct so far, a decision to either amend the constitution, or to effectively defy the constitution and refuse to pass enabling legislation, which would put them right in the centre of a political firestorm, and one that would be sure to harden attitudes and draw Western Cape fence-sitters into the fight, seems unlikely.

Will the ANC lose the battle to win the war?

In contrast, quietly allowing the amendment to pass, whilst respecting and defending the constitution, would avoid all of these issues. Ultimately, in isolation, referendums would have little or no legal value and opposing their outcomes using parliamentary and constitutional powers may very well seem like a more attractive proposition to the ANC.

For example, the people of the Western Cape may very well want control of the South African Police Service (SAPS), but the constitution vests control of SAPS with the national government, and any decision to change that would require the support of two thirds of the national assembly and six out of nine provinces. That is unlikely to ever happen.

The ANC may very well decide to not even contest a meaningless battle, knowing that it will have very little significance in the context of a wider war in which they hold the whip hand.

What questions should be asked?

The Referendums Act was passed in 1983, but it was subsequently amended in 1992 where, amongst other changes, the following provision was added:

……. the State President may, if he deems it expedient-

(a)   determine that more than one referendum shall be held at the same time to ascertain the views of different categories of voters, either on the same matter or on different matters

This provision will now be extended to provincial referendums.

Accordingly, Richard suggests that the DA, through Premier Alan Winde, should ask three questions on control of the police, control of rail services, and the control of electricity generation. He has presumably chosen these because they align with stated policies of the Western Cape DA.

What I find interesting here is that Richard, by inference, observes referendum questions as tools by which to further the existing policies of the DA in provincial government. The outcome of winning the referendum questions he perceives are an increase in democratic legitimacy for the demands of the DA within the confines of the existing system, and the education of voters who would better understand which sphere of government is responsible for failing services.

I see far more radical and revolutionary purposes for provincial referendums.

DA already have a mandate to control police, transport and electricity

Control of police, transport and electricity were all in the DA’s 2019 Western Cape manifesto. It was elected with 55% of the vote. It already has a clear unequivocal democratic mandate for those policies, but that mandate has not made one iota of difference. The DA won a significant concession on electricity following a court battle with the government, but the status quo remains in place for the police and transport. A win on these questions would simply be a rerun of 2019 and would have exactly the same impact on who actually controls the police and transport, none.

This of course begs the question, what is the point then? I suggest that the real purpose of referendums is far more Machiavellian.

A multi-question referendum is an opportunity to rally all the opponents of democratic centralism into by far the biggest ideological face-off of the South African democratic era. When the voting is counted, the ANC national government will have no intention whatsoever of granting any concessions on any of the questions regardless of what Western Cape voters will have said. We must not delude ourselves. Instead, the referendum must be a political and ideological Armageddon.

Referendum questions must bristle with implied threat

Accordingly, the referendum questions must be chosen to ensure that every provincial opponent of the ANC national government has a dog in the fight. More than that, the questions must bristle with implied threat, and these threats must have political escalation coursing through their veins. You can bet your house on two things, the Western Cape will vote overwhelmingly in favour of control of the police, and the ANC will respond with open derision. The referendum questions themselves are the only tool that can stop the ANC’s dismissal of Western Cape opinion dead in its tracks. A conversation in the ANC NEC about granting concessions on provincial policing is going to be given significantly more consideration if there is substantial support for secession.

So what questions would I ask? I would also start with police, transport and electricity, but then I would get to the heart of the ideological battle. Western Cape voters, and the DA with them, are currently the sheep in ‘Democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting over what’s for dinner’. This referendum is their best chance to become wolves. Do you want race-based policies such as affirmative action and BEE to be scrapped in the Western Cape? Would you like to see racial classification abolished in the Western Cape?

Referendum must tackle the root cause of our problems

Then we need to get to the root cause of the Western Cape’s problems, that we can neither elect nor remove the national government and that we have, for 27years, been governed without the consent of the majority. The system of government. If we are not going to address this issue we might as well all go home.

Here I would ask three questions, on Federalism (semi-autonomy), Confederalism (full autonomy), and Secession (Independence) and I would ask for a Yes or No on each. The combination of these three questions is immensely powerful, far more so than if only one of them were to be asked alone.

From the DA’s perspective, they already support federalism and, in theory at least, have always done so. The independence movement has allowed the DA to become much more vocal on the subject, and for federalism to begin to be perceived as politically moderate.

Federalism is now the compromise position, and the independence poll commissioned by the Cape Independence Advocacy Group (CIAG) last year affirms my view, that the DA would obtain majority support for federalism in a referendum at a canter. In the poll, 68% of Western Cape voters thought provincial governments should be given more power over policy, and this was a view held by the majority of all race groups.

A question on Cape Independence must be there

Where I most strongly differ with Richard, is that the independence question absolutely needs to be there, and not only because the DA needs independence supporters fully behind it when it calls the referendum.

For those who do not support independence, it is their foil and the referendum’s teeth. Without the implicit threat of independence hanging over the negotiations, there is no chance whatsoever of achieving federalism. It can only realistically be obtained as the compromise between independence and the status quo.

For those who do support independence, the multi-question format is the perfect chance to have their cake and eat it. If they win the independence question they will have established a democratic mandate for secession, albeit that they will be standing in a queue behind federalists, who will unquestionably have secured an even stronger mandate. If they lose, so long as they have made a credible showing, they will have established the basis for a single-question independence referendum in the event that a successful federalism mandate is dismissed by the national government (a very likely scenario).

Confederalism question a hedge for independence supporters

As an independence supporter myself, Confederalism would be a fascinating question. To all intents and purposes, it is independence by another name, but one which is perhaps a far easier sell to the electorate. It would deliver the critical components of independence; control over the constitution, economic policy, and immigration, but allow voters to notionally remain South African. It would be a much easier ‘up-sell’ to federalists than independence, and potentially very attractive to other cultural groups elsewhere in South Africa such as the Zulus. In terms of the referendum, it would also be a great hedge against losing the independence question.

The DA has now fired the opening salvo in the Western Cape war for greater autonomy from South Africa. The manner in which it has done so, by playing down the Western Cape link, suggests that it hopes to recruit allies in other provinces. It will no doubt be expecting a fight. I for one hope that political and ideological Armageddon is firmly on their agenda.

Fortune favours the brave.

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