I was raised in Natal (as it was then), a province regarded in the context of the segregated politics of the time as different. Its white population was majority Anglophone and clung to memories of the Imperial Connection – a popular bumper sticker read ‘Natal: the Last Outpost’, featuring the colonial coat of arms and the Union Jack.

It was alone among the four provinces in returning a No, at three quarters of votes cast in the province, in the 1960 referendum on declaring South Africa a Republic.

The uncomfortable relationship between Natal and the rest of the country manifested itself in a vocal independence movement, chronicled by the late Prof Paul Thompson in his 1990 work Natalians First: Separatism in South Africa 1909–1961. As it happens, my late grandfather was involved in this movement. A veteran of the Second World War, in Abyssinia, North Africa and Italy, he had been a loyal Smuts man. This has been held against him in the polarised post-war atmosphere, and he had an abiding loathing of the ‘Nats’. For someone like my grandfather, Natal secession represented a firm rejection of the Nats and their programme, and an affirmation of a distinctly Natalian identity, along with a piece of the Union for which he’d risked his life for five years.

Natal secession never gained the critical mass. The costs of going ahead with it, not least the loss of access to the revenue pool to which the Transvaal disproportionately contributed, overwhelmed whatever satisfaction the formation of an independent Natal promised. Natal did, however, remain ‘different’. In the 1980s, there was an initiative to constitute a sort of non-racial government over Natal and the KwaZulu homeland – an interesting initiative that resistance from the central government and from the ANC aborted – and in the 1990s, the prospect of IFP-led secession, Zulu rather than Anglo nationalism, was widely discussed, typically along with dark warnings of a Biafran-style conflagration.  

With this background, I’ve noted with interest the perennial discussion around the idea of Cape independence. As I understand it, the moniker speaks for itself: the ‘Cape’ – I understand this to mean the current Western Cape province, though I see some proponents have in mind a rather more expansive territory, taking in a good part of the Northern Cape – would break away from South Africa and become a sovereign state, with responsibility for its own internal and external relations. Rump South Africa would be one state among many with which it would interact.

The attraction of this is largely based on two things: on the manifest failings of South Africa under the ANC; and on the distinctiveness, culturally and otherwise, of the Western Cape.

The first of these is easy to understand. I’d wager that it’s the preponderant driver behind the movement. This is apparent from the pitch that the Cape Independence Advocacy Group makes on its website, and from the memes that cross my Facebook feed. One memorable example of the latter was a riff on the Titanic: the ship going down labelled South Africa while a lifeboat, the Western Cape, rows away in the foreground.

The second relates to a complex of factors. It can lay claim to a particular set of demographic and cultural markers. It is the only province in which Black Africans are not a majority (which is inevitably – unfairly in my view – invoked as evidence that the whole project is racist). The Western Cape has a history that sets it apart from much of the rest of the country, in that it did not form part of the conflict-stained frontier of the 19th Century, and it hosted the early intellectuals of Afrikanerdom. The legacy of the Asia-to-Africa slave trade is found in the Malay heritage. Since 1994, majorities have consistently voted for parties other than the ANC – the only province in which this is the case – and the Western Cape can claim without contradiction to be the best governed province in the country. Economic measures, such as jobs created (as the DA is fond of reminding us), are positive, at least by the rather dismal standards of South Africa. Its Western seaboard is a popular destination for well-heeled seasonal residents from the Northern Hemisphere.

So, would an independent Western Cape be viable? It would be a country with a surface area of 129,462 km², a population of 7.4 million, and a GDP of some R653bn (the latter two figures reflecting 2022). This would make it broadly comparable in size to Greece or Nicaragua, in population to Hong Kong or Serbia, and in its economic output to El Salvador or Estonia. Its geographic positioning and harbour facilities would give it a degree of geopolitical leverage that could constitute a valuable resource. (Bringing history full circle, this harks back to the origins of modern-day Cape Town.)

In broad terms, it would be a small but not entirely insignificant global presence, and certainly nothing that would be outside of the range of existing countries. All things being equal, an independent Cape would probably make a go of it.

The problem is that all things are not likely to be equal.

Advocates for Cape independence seek a peaceful path to secession. In practice, this has been pursued chiefly through trying to influence opinion and by agitating for a referendum in the province. The hope appears to be that a vote will demonstrate support for the idea and build pressure on the central government to concede the separation. Constitutionally, emphasis is put on the provisions relating to self-determination, while the Constitution’s requirement that international law be considered is seen as additional legitimation for separating the Western Cape from the rest of the country.

Peaceful secessions or partitions have been rare in recent history. The breakup of the Soviet Union took place with varying degrees of resistance as the exhausted empire disintegrated, while the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia unfolded peacefully to two streams of nationalist sentiment that were ultimately oriented to Western Europe. Quebec and Scotland might have exited their respective multinational polities, but referenda favoured remaining in them.

For the most part, though, secessions have been associated with conflict and warfare. This was true, for example, of the breakup of former Yugoslavia (issues pertaining to which have not yet been settled), of Eritrea from Ethiopia, or South Sudan from Sudan.

Peaceful secession is only possible with the consent, be it gracious or grudging, of the pre-existing mother country (or perhaps where it lacks the capacity to prevent a breakaway). Absent this, secession will be the outcome of confrontation – typically violent – that either forces the government to grant independence or creates a stalemate in which this is part of a peace deal.

This is the heart of the problem. The central government – whether in the form of the ANC or any other conceivable option – will not consider conceding secession. It refuses even to countenance a referendum. (Notably, it also opposed holding a referendum on the death penalty in the Western Cape in the 1990s.) Referendum or not, the view from Tshwane is that there is simply nothing to negotiate.

This too has deep roots. The ANC was opposed to devolution from the outset (with some exceptions for municipal government), believing that a strong central authority could lead the country in a disciplined march to reconstruction and development, and hold recalcitrant, regionally based opponents at bay. Front of mind at the time was KwaZulu-Natal under the IFP. It is why of the three ‘spheres’ of government, provinces received the smallest amount of discretion and hardly any power of the purse. It is key to understanding why, international experience to the contrary, South Africa has an entirely centralised police force. The ANC was resolutely opposed to placing any coercive force in the hands of any potential opposition. It remains so today – probably fortified by concerns that investigative powers outside its political control could be a dangerous tool against it, given its own conduct.

And contrary to the claims of independence advocates, it will be hard to argue for independence on the basis of the current Constitution. True enough, it includes a provision for self-determination. This represented a tactical concession during the transition, chiefly a sop to Afrikaner nationalists who hoped to negotiate themselves a Volkstaat somewhere in the relatively unpopulated Northern Cape with the goodwill of the ANC. The ANC had no intention of granting anything of the sort. And while lawyers could haggle over the implications of the relevant clause, it seems to me that it precludes secession: ‘The right of the South African people as a whole to self-determination, as manifested in this Constitution, does not preclude, within the framework of this right, recognition of the notion of the right of self-determination of any community sharing a common cultural and language heritage, within a territorial entity in the Republic or in any other way, determined by national legislation.’

To me this says that as things stand now, it may be possible to set up some sort of undefined and ambiguous ‘self-determination’, but it is doubtful that this could be an option to leave the country. Besides, the first principle of cooperative governance enunciated in Chapter 3 is that all ‘spheres’ of government must ‘preserve the peace, national unity and the indivisibility of the Republic.’ That last bit is pretty unambiguous.

Nor is it likely that the Western Cape could fall back on external patronage to bolster its claims, a factor that has been decisive in some places. Slovenia and Croatia, for example, benefited mightily from German recognition, which is why streets named after Hans-Dietrich Genscher proliferated across these countries.

I just don’t see a peaceful or constitutional route to achieve this goal. An unsympathetic government and a system set up to foreclose the possibility erect formidable practical barriers to achieving the objective.

As for a non-peaceful route, it’s not even floated as a possibility. Indeed, since Western Cape independence is intended to preserve the achievements of the province, a war to get there would be inherently self-defeating. That is for the good, of course – the Western Cape lacks even the police force that a proto-state like Croatia could call on as a stop gap when it separated from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Even if all these obstacles could be overcome, I’m not convinced that an independent Western Cape would deliver the hopes of its advocates. For one thing, the Western Cape would remain tightly functionally linked to South Africa. Its economy would be bound to that of its larger neighbour. And many – perhaps most – citizens of the Western Cape would have social or family ties beyond its borders. Political independence would not sever these ties.

Nor would political independence sever the Western Cape from the pathologies of South Africa. It would share a lengthy land border with its misgoverned neighbour, with all the associated difficulties of (now) illegal cross border migration and crime. The power grid would remain integrated. (What would happen to an asset like Koeberg would be a thorny matter.) Issues of environmental and water management would require cooperation that would probably be complicated by resentment (along with garden-variety incompetence) on the part of South Africa’s government.

True enough, with a more competent government, the Western Cape would move to implement its own solutions, and it is not inconceivable that it would make a respectable showing. But ultimately, it would be a small, quite fragile territory overshadowed by its volatile neighbour, its very existence perhaps less a beacon of hope than a signal of desperation.

To my mind, the campaign for Cape independence comes with significant risks, however unintended they may be. An idea that has little prospect of success and with doubtful benefits if it could be achieved, in the meantime imposes political costs on those seeking reform. The ANC is not interested in the matter, except to the extent that it can use it to claim the existence of a racist conspiracy. Demands for a referendum are therefore aimed at the Democratic Alliance and others opposing the ANC. Polling, incidentally, suggests considerable support for a referendum and for independence.

This puts the DA and other reformists in an invidious position. They can go along with the implausible faux solution by making concessions to the independence movement. This may play well with some of their constituency in the Western Cape, but risks alienating their supporters nationwide. It signals that they are not committed to the country as a whole, and willing to forgo a large proportion of its voting support. Or they can reject it, and have to spend a disproportionate amount of effort fending off criticism that they are prepared to forgo the democratic choice of the people of the Western Cape and to sacrifice their supporters when an ‘obvious’ solution for securing their future exists.

In either case, this ultimately benefits the ANC and the anti-reformists. As it happens, the question of Natal secession in the 1950s played a role in undermining the Torch Commando – a veterans’ group formed to protest the NP’s undermining of the then Constitution in respect of Coloured people’s voting rights. My grandfather was also active in it, and it was said to have been the only organisation that ever frightened the NP. I am afraid Cape independence is doing much the same thing.

Writing in a similar vein to mine on this issue, a retired economics academic, Dr Brian Benfield, comments: ‘Instead of taking the Western Cape out of South Africa, the Western Cape must be injected into the rest of it.’

I’d agree with that. And I am also acutely aware of the scale of the challenges that confront South Africa. The future of the country and of each of its people is at a precarious junction, with no guarantees for any of us. I don’t pretend to have easy answers. Indeed, the solutions I can see involve tough and uncertain courses of action.

Cape independence, I fear, promises a superficial answer with no prospects of realisation. Concerned about the future, we need to look elsewhere.

[Image: By Htonl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5154745]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.