Why John Steenhuisen is wrong about Cape Independence

Phil Craig says a multi-party charter govt cannot negate the clear advantages of a free Cape

Why John Steenhuisen is wrong about Cape Independence

2 February 2024

Straight talk! This was the theme of a public digital question and answer session DA leader John Steenhuisen held this week. Inevitably, the question of Cape Independence repeatedly came up, and Steenhuisen chose one such question to set out at some length his views on the subject.

A caller named Mike asked, “Cape Independence, can it even happen and do you think it is a good thing?”

Steenhuisen responded in three parts. He believed that, at least for now, Western Cape devolution represented the low-hanging fruit and offered a quick win in the Western Cape. He then presented Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec as proof that gaining independence was not a realistic possibility. Finally, he claimed that the necessity for Cape Independence no longer existed because the multi-party charter now offered a clear path to national government.

As someone with a detailed knowledge of each of these scenarios, I found the response somewhat surreal. All of these claims can be measured against empirical fact, and in each of the three cases, Steenhuisen could not be more wrong if he had tried.

Devolution - the low-hanging fruit?

In 2019, Alan Winde was elected Western Cape Premier. The centre-point of his election campaign was a promise to fight for the devolution of policing and rail. He was elected with an outright majority. A Western Cape Devolution Working Group (WCDWG) was formed where several other political parties, civil society, and academia actively supported the DA’s attempts to deliver devolution.

Five years later on, as Alan Winde ends his term, he has spectacularly failed to deliver the devolution of powers. Without the consent of the ANC-led national government, devolution is simply not deliverable. In this context, for Steenhuisen to describe it as a ‘quick win’ is as laughable as it is insulting to our intelligence.

Winde has asked for devolution, the ANC has said no. The DA has tabled a devolution bill (the Western Cape Provincial Powers Bill) but even if it passed, it still requires the consent of national government. The Western Cape’s own legal advisors have twice declared the Bill unlawful. Public hearings on the Bill are meant to be taking place this week, but to date, the ANC have prevented any of them from being concluded.

Devolution is the antithesis of low-hanging fruit.

Is Cape Independence impossible?

But what then about Cape Independence? Are Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec living proof that independence represents an insurmountable challenge. The irony is that they are superb examples of just how achievable independence is in a democracy, and exactly what needs to be done in order to achieve it.

Scotland and Quebec have both held independence referendums, in accordance with the rules of their legal systems. In both cases, the referendums were held peacefully, and in the event that the people of either country were to have voted for independence, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that they would now be independent countries. The only reason Scotland and Quebec currently remain part of the UK and Canada respectively, is because their peoples voted to remain as opposed to leave.

Catalonia was different. Where Scotland and Quebec held legal referendums, Catalonia held an illegal one. Prior to the referendum taking place the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled it illegal, but Catalonia proceeded with it anyway. The consequence was that the referendum had no legal legitimacy.

The key to independence in a constitutional democracy is the holding a democratic referendum in accordance with the law. Providing this process is followed, denying independence following a majority vote in favour of it becomes almost impossible.

The South Africa Constitution empowers the Western Cape Premier to call referendums. Where the DA/Western Cape must go cap-in-hand to the ANC and beg in vain for devolution, the DA Western Cape Premier can simply call a referendum on Cape Independence, in accordance with the Constitution, and without even needing to ask the ANC, let alone require their permission.

Devolution is currently impossible, but Cape Independence most certainly isn’t. It is not the ANC who are denying the Western Cape people the option of Cape Independence, it is the DA.

Multi-party charter renders Cape Independence unnecessary

Steenhuisen’s final gambit was that Cape Independence was no longer necessary because, through the multi-party charter, the DA was now in sight of national government. Once again, this was fanciful in the extreme.

In 2021, the parties of the multi-party charter jointly achieved 33% of the vote. Steenhuisen says they now have 36% of the vote, 16% points away from victory (sic).

In three years, where in the last calendar year we have had rolling power cuts on 332 out of 365 days, the multi-party charter has managed to increase its share of the vote by just 3%. Yet Steenhuisen would seemingly have us believe that it can make up 16% in the next four months. Nobody but nobody can find this suggestion credible, and of course, no serious pollster does. One way or another, the ANC will still be in charge after 2024.

Will a multi-party charter government negate Cape Independence?

Even hypothetically, however, a multi-party charter government cannot negate the clear advantages of Cape Independence. Once again, we don’t need to speculate, Johannesburg is the test case for Steenhuisen’s theory.

In Johannesburg in 2021, the ANC fell to 34%, with the EFF getting 11%. The multi[1]party charter parties got 46% with the DA on 27%. This is the supposed dream scenario for the 2024 national elections. The ANC will definitely not fall as low as 34%, and the DA will almost certainly not reach 27%.

Did this dream scenario result in salvation for the residents of Johannesburg, and in doing so demonstrate that the future for South Africa under a multi-party charter government is bright? No, it did exactly the opposite. It demonstrated the ultimate folly of the multi-party charter, it rendered Johannesburg ungovernable, and the suffering of Jo’burgers increased.

What evidence is there for this? In August 2023, the DA themselves put it on record when they proposed a motion calling for fresh elections in Johannesburg because it had become ungovernable.

This is what they had to say,

“The DA brings this motion in the interest of all residents of Joburg, who are tired of the political instability that has brought service delivery to its knees. (....) The root cause of Joburg’s instability is the excessive political fragmentation that followed the November 2021 local government elections.”

Cape Independence now more necessary than ever

In light of this, how can the DA possibly claim that a multi-party government at a national level will be sufficiently successful that Western Cape voters, who have given the DA an outright majority for three straight terms, no longer need to pursue Cape Independence?

It is time we deal with the harsh political realities.

The multi-party charter will not win the 2024 national elections, it won’t even come close. Instead we will have another ANC-led national government, except this one is likely to be far more dangerous than other ANC governments to date. This is because it will almost certainly have to rely on the support of parties even more radical than itself. To obtain that support, it will have to make concessions, and this should terrify moderates everywhere.

The Western Cape will comprehensively reject that government, but regardless of its democratic wishes, because it remains a part of South Africa it will be subject to it anyway.

There is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of that government voluntarily devolving powers to the Western Cape. Accordingly, devolution remains dead in the water. The only possible solution is Cape Independence.

In contrast to all other options, there is a clear legal path to independence, it is based purely on the actions of the Western Cape Government and its people, and for this first time ever since 1994, it would allow the majority of the Western Cape people to be governed at a national level by the party they voted for.

Cape Independence isn’t a pipe-dream, but the alternatives certainly are a nightmare.

Phil Craig is the leader of the Referendum Party and co-founded the Cape Independence Advocacy Group. He is fighting to establish a genuinely non-racial first world country at Africa’s southern tip.