Cape independence is an idea that is gaining increasing traction. Although it is dismissed by most as the notion of a lunatic fringe, if the government continues on its current path it is one that will soon gain a foothold in the mainstream.

A number of well-organised bodies are pushing the idea into the mainstream, among them the Cape Independence Advocacy Group. And in the last provincial election in the Western Cape nearly 10 000 people (0.5% of ballots cast) voted for the Cape Party, a single-issue party whose sole purpose is the independence of most of what was the old Cape Province.

The idea of Western Cape independence has also seen some pearl-clutching on social media and among some in the media, especially after a questionnaire was posted on Twitter by Progress SA, a young people’s movement which advocates for liberalism, canvassing opinion on Cape secession.

That’s not to say that the idea of Western Cape independence should necessarily be given any serious thought. And some of its ambassadors lurch closer to the bizarre than the dignified. Following the slaughter of a sheep on Clifton Beach in Cape Town in 2018 as a rite to ‘cleanse’ the beach of racism, a Cape Party delegation led by its leader, Jack Miller, ‘slaughtered’ a watermelon on the same spot in order to – well, that’s not too clear.

Moreover, some advocates for Cape secession do themselves no favours by making it seem that they dream of an independent Cape that is free of black people. For example, a group calling itself Gatvol Capetonian has also called for an independent Western Cape, saying that any people who were not born in the Western Cape ‘before 1994 must pack up and go home.’ Or consider CapeXit, which in its FAQs has a question asking what is going to happen to the ‘Blacks’ in an independent Cape.

Yet secession in South Africa is not a new idea, though, since Union in 1910, it has invariably been Natal (and later KwaZulu-Natal) which has shown itself to have the biggest itch to escape from Pretoria. News reports from the 1930s often spoke about the possibility of Natal secession. With the rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1940s and the victory of the National Party in 1948, calls for Natal secession became even louder, but the movement seemed to fade into obscurity after South Africa became a republic in 1961.

Driven by Zulus

The idea got new legs in the latter part of the last century, but this time driven by Zulus rather than English-speaking whites, when the secession of KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s was a realistic possibility during South Africa’s transition. The idea again faded away after the Inkatha Freedom Party agreed to participate in South Africa’s first inclusive election in 1994. However, it is clearly not an idea that is ever far from the thoughts of our friends in KwaZulu-Natal, as evidenced by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s saying in 2018 that he was prepared to take his kingdom out of the Republic.

And anyway, any country worth its salt has a secession movement somewhere. The brave Scots came close to throwing off the yoke of London in 2014 and it seems that the idea of Scottish independence is still alive. And let’s not forget the downtrodden Quebecois who came within fewer than 50 000 votes (out of nearly 5 million cast) of escaping the Ottawan jackboot in 1995. Even Western Australia has a secession movement, which goes to show, even Australians can’t stand other Australians.

But, more seriously, it’s not only over-pampered Westerners who try to create independent states. In the past few decades we’ve seen South Sudan breakaway from Sudan proper, East Timor from Indonesia, and Somaliland from Somalia (although the former is not recognized internationally by any government, despite being de facto independent), to name a few.

Reasons behind the push

Some would argue that it is likely that most supporters of the Cape Party and Cape secession are indeed over-pampered Westerns (or at least Western Capelanders). But the fact of the matter is that there are reasons behind the push for Cape secession. Just as we should not simply dismiss those who vote for Donald Trump or Brexit as racists, we should not simply dismiss those who advocate for Western Cape independence as lunatics, no matter how far-fetched the idea of an independent Cape republic may seem.

It’s important to listen to why Western Cape secessionists want to be independent, and why they think it’s feasible. Phil Craig of the Cape Independence Advocacy Group wrote on these pages a week ago about why Cape independence is possible.

However, it is quite easy to end agitation for Western Cape independence, without firing a shot or making it illegal to talk about the idea.

A South Africa which has a rapidly growing economy, uses its taxes responsibly, maintains a professional police service which treats citizens as partners rather than adversaries, and which considers property rights as a foundation stone, instead of an obstacle to social advancement, would likely contain very few people or movements wanting to leave the Republic.

But South Africa today is none of those things. Instead the government holds onto economic ideas that have failed, insists on the continued implementation of policies that have no benefit to ordinary South Africans, and continues to use taxpayers’ money profligately. And that is not to say anything about the assault on property rights, which is set to continue anew in post-Covid South Africa.

As long as Pretoria continues on a path guaranteed to eventually take South Africa to ruin, the Western Cape secession movement will move from being an idea on the fringe to one which may be taken seriously by people who matter. To end the idea of Western Cape secession the government must put the country on the path to economic prosperity, which it seems unwilling or unable to do.

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