RW Johnson: Independent Western Cape gains support as SA economy flounders

We either heed history or repeat it. That’s the thrust of this brilliant contribution by Rhodes Scholar and Oxford don RW Johnson as he applies his mind to the prospect of Western Cape independence. Those who look back to see the future need little reminding how in 1910 the colony of Natal came within a whisker of staying outside the Union of South Africa. Or how until that point SA was actually four separate countries whose consolidation was only successful because of strong economic growth thereafter. Today, while many citizens of the Western Cape muse about independence from the ruling ANC’s centralist philosophy, actual secession is paid little serious attention. That may well change. In this piece, republished with permission of the author and Politicsweb, Johnson suggests Western Cape separatist dreams could start taking root. As ever, he’s on the money. A desire for smaller sovereignty units is, after all, a global phenomenon – witness Brexit, Scotland, Nigeria and a growing number of other examples. – Alec Hogg

By RW Johnson*

I live in Cape Town and mix with a reasonable cross-section of my fellow residents. In recent time, particularly among the white and Coloured communities – who make up around 70% of the population, I have been surprised to see how often the notion has come up quite spontaneously of an independent Western Cape or, at the least, considerably greater autonomy for the Cape. In any group where the subject comes up there is, each time, great and universal approbation for such schemes. People exclaim with enthusiasm “That is my dream !”, “Oh, if only we could do that !” and so on.

This is interesting because while these sentiments are undeniably out there and in some strength but they are, as yet wholly unrepresented in the public realm. True, in the last elections here a tiny Cape Independence Party made its appearance. Its posters proclaiming an independent Cape caused a considerable frisson but the party received a derisory vote because even those who sympathised with it felt considerably more comfortable voting to retain DA rule locally. But if my (admittedly unscientific) sample is anything to go by, such sentiment has since become stronger.

Bill Johnson 3

The roots of such feeling are not difficult to discern. Ever since the DA came to power in Cape Town and in the Western Cape one has heard a growing chorus from visitors that “It feels like a different (and better) country down here !” The public hospitals and schools work far better here than anywhere else in South Africa, the traffic lights work better, the city centre is safer, there is less litter and generally there is better governance.

The municipalities of the Western Cape typically get clean audits and the whole province is seen as a showcase for DA rule. The Cape is also predominantly Afrikaans-speaking and there is considerable resentment at attempts to do away with Afrikaans instruction. Indeed, some Coloured Afrikaans-speakers have told me that they see the attempt to make Stellenbosch University English-speaking as the second great betrayal of the Coloured people.

In the 1950s, the argument runs, the abolition of the Coloured vote cut the community off from its natural development. Now, at last, the universities are open to its sons and daughters but since most are Afrikaans-speaking, a change in language policy would deprive another generation of the chance of social mobility.

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Beyond that, of course, the Western (and Northern) Cape are distinctive in having predominantly Coloured and Afrikaans-speaking populations, the only places in South Africa where Africans are in a minority. There is, inevitably, a resentment against the tide of African immigrants from the Eastern Cape which has flooded into the Western Cape since the abolition of influx control. Whisper it softly, but the fact is that many Coloureds were happier when the Cape was a Coloured Labour Preference Area.

One hears angry and sometimes racist statements: “Why do we want these people ? They only bring problems”. “Zille was right, they are refugees. They are fleeing from the Eastern Cape because it’s collapsed under ANC rule. And they come here and vote for the ANC so they can collapse things here too”. “They are committing genocide against the Coloured population”. And so on. There are many bitter remarks about Jimmy Manyi having declared that Coloureds should only get 8% of the jobs in the country and that they should be forcibly spread out around the country.

Cape Town
Table Mountain

Common to both white and Coloured narratives is the notion that under ANC rule South Africa has been sliding backwards on almost every index, that the Western Cape has, alone, resisted this trend. Inevitably, both communities see only a further downwards slide under ANC rule and simply want to remove themselves from it.

From time to time black intellectuals from Gauteng come down here and write bitter articles saying that the Cape is not properly African, that Africans can’t feel comfortable here, that it is racist – and so on. However, over time I have made a steady practice of asking ordinary Africans I meet here how they like Cape Town. They are uniformly enthusiastic – and like it for all the same reasons that whites and Coloureds do.

One is left with the feeling that up-country black intellectuals dislike Cape Town simply because they are in a minority here and that doesn’t feel quite right to them. For whites, Coloureds and Indians who are used to being in a minority almost everywhere, this cuts no ice. What is more striking to me is the enthusiastic approbation of working class and immigrant Africans. In other words the black intellectuals who denounce the Cape may not represent very much.

Imagining a separate Cape

What would a more autonomous Cape look like? In almost every sphere one finds a push for self-sufficiency. More and more businesses are providing their own power supply (and the City of Cape Town would like to get into the act too). Similarly, there is increasing talk of Cape Town and the Western Cape building de-salination plants along the coast. In such ways, a de facto energy and water independence might be achieved. There is talk of the city or the province taking more control over its railways and there is huge frustration at the way the national police force is starving the Cape of sufficient police on the ground: everyone would leap at the idea of a local police force, locally recruited, controlled and monitored.

There is great pride in Cape Town’s superior hospitals and a bitter resistance to the thought of the central government taking control over them (as is intended). Inevitably, the private sector in medicine is very large and active in Cape Town. However, all discussions of autonomy/independence centre on the fact that the key moment would be when the local authorities set up a local fund into which all taxes now paid to the national government were instead paid to the Cape. This would be the moment of a great leap of faith when independence actually happened.

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Could an independent Cape make sense? Financially, not as things stand. In effect Gauteng still subsidises the Cape. But it is still possible that an independent Cape might boom. Almost certainly it would attract a large amount of domestic and international investment as the dead hand of the ANC was removed. Doubtless, the resultant state would experience a long-lasting tourism boom as well as a continuing infusion of educated people and capital as minority South Africans from other provinces migrated there. Quite likely that would in turn spur a boom in high-tech and associated industries.

Concentrate more and more of the minorities and their capital in one province, remove the spectre of ANC rule and you would, fairly certainly, get an investment and entrepreneurial explosion. Already Cape Town attracts high-tech entrepreneurs, it is the only province with four universities, major financial institutions are headquartered here – in a word, all the elements are present.

How realistic is such a vision? One cannot rule it out. One should never forget that there is a fundamental difference between countries which were always unified national states (like France) and those which were made up of separate national units – like Yugoslavia or, indeed, the UK. If the Treaty of Union between Britain and Scotland, signed in 1707, can today still provide the focus for a powerful movement for Scottish independence, what can one say of the fact that South Africa was, until 1910, four separate countries? Those lines of division remain in the popular mind and even in today’s provincial boundaries.

However, no matter how one conceives of this movement – towards greater autonomy, independence, whatever – there is no getting around the fact that there would have to be a “big bang” moment when tax-payers in the Cape all began to pay into a Cape-based fund rather than to the national revenue collection.

When the Cape began to have its own police force, when the city of Cape Town or the province of Western Cape begins to build desalination plants along the coast to create its own water supply and when it begins to generate most of its own electricity.

The silent issue

The reason why this growing swell of popular support for greater Cape autonomy finds no public representation is simple:  it is an embarrassment to all the political parties. The ANC is, of course, flatly centralist and feels threatened by any talk of greater provincial autonomy. Probably the EFF would feel the same though Malema may dream of a more autonomous Limpopo province which he might head. The DA is cross-pressured.

Helen Zille has continually been accused by the ANC that she was building a boerestaat in the Western Cape and naturally has been at pains to disavow any such ambition. Rather, the Western Cape is seen by the DA as its model shop-window for the rest of the country, demonstrating that the DA governs better. In that sense, it is crucial to the DA’s effort in the rest of South Africa.

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For the Western Cape to develop separatist ambitions would not only deprive the DA of its one great stronghold inside the system but would also serve to undermine the legitimacy of the DA’s efforts everywhere. On the other hand, DA representatives in the Western Cape are doubtless aware that most of their voters there would prefer greater provincial autonomy and some would opt for outright independence, so they hardly wish to deny all such hopes. So complete silence is the best policy.

Even the Freedom Front and the Afrikaner Right would have difficulties with this issue. The problem – which De Klerk faced in 1990 – was that there was no “predominantly white” part of the country. Indeed, the biggest concentration of whites (in Gauteng) was situated amongst an even larger black population.

The Afrikaner Right demanded a territorial division of the country – but no one could say where a boerstaat should be. When one was finally founded in Orania, it was not in any of the areas of Afrikaner concentration but in the empty spaces of the Northern Cape.

The territorial dimension

It is worth pointing out that South Africa as a whole might have benefited had there been a territorial dimension to the post-apartheid settlement. The classic comparison is Canada which has a much stronger form of federalism. When the French-speaking population of Quebec felt that their language and culture was being submerged by the Anglo culture, Quebec separatism forced the Ottawa government to reconsider.

French was given equal status with English in every province of the country and the Liberal Party elected French-speaking leaders who became Prime Minister. Only when it was clear that French language and culture were to be given full recognition and protection did Quebec separatism subside. This was all undoubtedly good for Canada.

The acceptance of the power and rightful place of the Francophone minority has broadened into the acceptance that in a democracy there must be respect for all minorities. But crucially this all depended on Quebec’s ability to threaten secession: it was that threat which forced the Anglophone majority to make these concessions which were to the advantage of the whole of Canada.

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There seems little doubt that there would have been major benefits to the national community had a stronger version of federalism prevailed in South Africa. If the national ruling elite had had any anxiety about separatist pressures in the Western Cape this would have gone far to moderate the Jimmy Mani-style of affirmative action which has so undermined trust among Coloureds. And that in turn would have benefited all the minorities.

Had the ruling elite been more concerned at the threat of more Oranias, the complete alienation of the Afrikaans community could easily have been avoided by a proper respect for its culture and language – which, after all, the constitution endorses. The result would have been to foster a common South Africanism, an enhanced sense of national cohesion, in just the same way that Canadian tolerance and inclusiveness has fostered a stronger sense of a common Canadian identity.

As it is, our constitution has been a pathway to the easy exercise of unbridled majoritarianism which has sometimes been vindictive, spiteful and needlessly intolerant.

The costs of alienation

The results are now plain to see – and the costs are very high. Well over a million whites have quit the country, as have smaller numbers of Coloureds, Asians and Africans. Many have literally despaired of their country. Opinion surveys make it clear that this is true even of many members of the minorities who remain in South Africa.

Orania is something of a weathervane in this. At its birth during the high period of post-1994 euphoria it was ridiculed and seen to have little future. Today it is thriving and growing and there is talk of more Oranias. The same stresses are seen politically: the ANC has lost most of its minority support and there is an evident process of political polarisation.

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As African nationalism fails, many voices – emanating from the EFF and ANC – become only more shrill and hysterical, while not a few whites, Indians and Coloureds have relapsed back into the openly racist attitudes of the past. It would be wrong to say that the rainbow nation has failed completely but what is certainly true is that the combination of over-centralised power and an intolerant majoritarianism is driving the national community apart.

The evolution of Cape politics

In the Cape the passage of time has made the situation clearer. Initially, the dreadful performance of the DP in 1994 appeared to have killed off Cape liberalism. Within the Western Cape there was a long and confused jostling for power between the ANC and the National Party, producing a merry-go-round of provincial premiers ranging from Hernus Kriel and Marthinus Van Schalkwyk to Peter Marais, Gerald Morkel and Ebrahim Rasool.

The DP (and then DA) gained steadily but for a long time the province’s political system remained extremely competitive – essentially because the ANC retained large-scale Coloured support, inherited from UDF days. Had the ANC behaved differently, this could have been maintained but probably the fatal moment came with the mayoralty of Cape Town of the ANC’s Nomaindia Mfeketo, an administration so riddled by corruption, looting and nepotism that its reputation still hangs in the air like a bad smell. Capetonians dismissed this administration at the first opportunity, allowing the DA to take control for the first time. The DA took its chance and soon consolidated its power in both the city and the province.

Today the DA’s dominance has every appearance of permanence. At each election it has further strengthened its position and it has continued to gain power in many of the province’s smaller municipalities as well. The ANC rails against it but quite ineffectively. Crucially, the ANC has lost the Coloured vote and there is no longer such a thing as even a single ANC Coloured ward in Cape Town.

But the ANC is handicapped by the fact that it seems almost not to understand democratic politics. Its militants’ habit of excrement-throwing has merely served to further alienate support in all communities. Its repeated threats to make the city or the province ungovernable simply derive from the wrong era: it was one thing to destabilize an apartheid government but to attempt to overturn a democratically elected government by mass action smacks of the fascist tactics of the 1930s.

There is no sign that such campaigns even have the support of Khayelitsha. On top of that, the ANC has the habit of sending teams of its “big guns” to investigate why the city and province have this strange predilection for Opposition voting and to recommend how they can be made to revert to normalcy under ANC rule. Frequently Nomaindia Mfeketo is sent as one of these “big guns”, suggesting that the ANC has failed to understand anything about its own defeat. Meanwhile, the spectacle of the ANC undemocratically holding onto power in Oudtshoorn and looting the town into bankruptcy has not improved the party’s image in the province.

The fact that the DA has run Cape Town for the last ten years and the Western Cape for the last seven, has had multiple effects. First, the area’s reputation for clean and better governance has been good for business confidence and has attracted investment. The result is a faster rate of economic growth than the rest of the country and a lower unemployment rate. The area’s attraction to foreign visitors has visibly increased.

The decay of Cape Town’s inner city has been halted and completely reversed. The Waterfront area is still a sea of construction cranes, a clear sign of continuing investment. This in turn has caused a continuing “semigration” as more and more members of all race groups seek to move here from other provinces.

It is estimated that 80% of all high net worth individuals in South Africa will soon have first or second homes in the Cape. As a result, even in the midst of the current recession, property prices in the Cape remain firm and, indeed, had a 12% increase last year. The results may be seen in Cape Town’s explosive growth towards the West Coast and the booming growth of both the province’s next two biggest towns, Stellenbosch and George.

The impact of immigration

Although the largest element in immigration to the Cape probably still comes from Xhosa-speakers from the Eastern Cape, there is also no doubt that Cape Town and the Western Cape have now thoroughly re-established their claim to be the mother city and mother province in the eyes of the country’s minorities as well as a considerable number of immigrants from Zimbabwe and other African countries.

The political impact of this immigration has probably been to strengthen the DA’s hold over the area – after all, that is one of the factors attracting the migrants. One might have expected the continuing influx of Xhosa-speakers to have inflated the ANC’s vote, but this has not happened: indeed, the DA’s share of the vote has continued to grow. At the least this suggests that the African electorate is somewhat demotivated, but it is also true that the DA has been nibbling successfully at its fringes.

A factor which may have some significance in the future is that most of the African immigrants, particularly the Zimbabweans, seem solidly on the DA side. Overall, there seems no doubt that this inward migration has increased the forces pushing for greater autonomy or even independence for the Cape. Many of the immigrants are, after all, seeking to leave areas of ANC governance and would find attractive the idea of achieving even greater distance from central ANC rule.

However, it is important not to look at the incoming tide of affluent white immigrants to the Cape and arrive at the conclusion that an autonomous Cape would be a boerestaat. For a start, many of these incomers are retirees. They will be found not on the barricades but on the golf-courses and their verandahs. They are not the stuff of which an insurgent separatist movement can be made.

Secondly, the solidity of DA rule in both city and province rests upon the fact that the party actively recruits among all race groups and everyone can see that that is the only way ahead. In practice this means that the Coloured community’s dominant position in the population is reflected politically and it provides many of the bloc’s leaders.

An uncertain future

Where does this leave the question of greater autonomy for the Western Cape? On the one hand one can predict fairly safely that the local appetite for autonomy will only grow. On the other hand, one can be sure that the central ANC government will be adamantly opposed to making any concession. Indeed, without much doubt they would interpret the slightest sign of autonomist feeling as an imperialist-inspired attempt to destabilize the country.

Given the fact that the DA will wish to keep the issue dormant too, this may be enough to keep it from surfacing too openly. But the country is sliding towards an economic and political crisis, a process which the ANC seems unwilling to recognize, let alone stop.

Given that process, one can imagine circumstances in which voices will be raised in the Western Cape asking whether it might be better to float away in a lifeboat of one’s own devising rather than go down with the ship. Moreover, in such circumstances the central government’s grip on the situation may also be loosened. If the downward spiral were to continue such pressures for autonomy would be bound to increase.

Conversely, the best way to put this issue back to sleep would be for the country to find a way to clamber out of the present crisis and start growing strongly again. One can safely predict that in such circumstances, racial and political tensions would ease and that the status quo would again begin to seem attractive. After all, South Africa was jammed together into becoming one country only by armed force and a major war. The resulting union was a difficult place to govern and might not have worked at all.

Nigeria’s dread example

One only has to look at contemporary Nigeria to see how a period of poor governance and economic stress can cause a country to dis-assemble. When Muhammadu Buhari became President of Nigeria last year the prospect was fair: he had promised to crack down on corruption and on Boko Haram – and he clearly meant it.

Strong steps were taken against those who had looted the national treasury and the army successfully cracked down on Boko Haram. But the oil price had fallen, creating downward pressure on the naira and Buhari, old and ignorant of economics, refused to allow a devaluation. The currency black market took over. Dollars were hoarded, business came to a standstill, people lost jobs and the economy went into free fall.

In Nigeria, social stress quickly manifests itself in ethnic form and so, a year later, we find Boko Haram is still there, 320 have died in Muslim-Christian clashes in the North, 300 Shiite Muslims have been shot dead by the army and there have been renewed attacks on oil and gas installations in the Niger Delta, causing a 70% cut in the electricity supply.

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Most threateningly of all there has been a recrudescence of Biafran separatism in the Eastern region where 40 pro-Biafra activists have been shot dead by the army – which is, of course, bound to trigger reprisals. This sort of thing cannot go on for long without the whole country pulling itself apart, for Nigerian society is far too various to have any natural unity.

The conventional wisdom until now has been that having lost three million people in a civil war means that Nigerians will not risk such divisions again. That is now clearly out of date. Indeed, on recent visits to Nigeria I have found insistent questioning as to whether its component parts might not be better apart. I have even heard some Yorubas in the West wondering aloud whether things might have been better if Biafra had won its war.

The successful Union

South Africa has been much luckier. Despite also having every sort of racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic division, separatist tendencies have been easily contained thus far. In part this was due to the shrewdness of the founders at Union, sharing out the Parliament, the Appeal Court and the Executive between three provinces. (Natal, which lost out in that deal, was the only province to dream of going it alone.)

On top of that the decision of Botha and Smuts to seek reconciliation (and the fact that Afrikaner leaders were back in control) headed off the danger in the crucial nearly years that disgruntled and embittered Afrikaners might try to reconstitute anything like the old Boer republics. Moreover, for most of its history as one country South Africa has experienced quite rapid economic growth and the country has become steadily richer and stronger despite having many times more people than at the outset.

This has been a hugely unifying force for it meant that Union had been an undeniable success.  Thus there has been little real threat to the original union – indeed, the attempt to create bantustans in the apartheid era never really gained credence. Even in the eyes of apartheid supporters Venda, Transkei, Lebowa and the rest all remained fundamentally part of South Africa.

What is different now, and what is so destructive, is the widespread feeling that under the present government South Africa is doomed to slide and to keep falling on every index. People point to the increasingly ragged state of many of our institutions and conclude that “everything is falling to bits and not working”. Which, translated, means that whereas Union was a big success, the New South Africa has not been.

If such a belief really sets in, it is only to be expected that people will seek other solutions. In other words, the government needs urgently to carry out the structural reforms required to kick-start economic growth again not just because that is the only way to bring down unemployment but because it is in the long run the only way to maintain national unity.

  • This story is republished with permission from Politicsweb where it first appeared.