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2 September 2014 20:42 (South Africa)
South Africa

The state of being in the Cape

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\brooks on seccession

While spending time in Cape Town this past week, one of the weirder manifestations of Barack Obama’s victory caught this writer’s eye. The confluence of the two things got him thinking about the sanctity and continuity of nation states as they are now – or may become so in the future. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

About a year ago, virtually unnoticed outside America, the Obama administration launched a public outreach effort to American citizens – a kind of electronic, cyber-lekgotla to bring people closer to their government. The idea was that anyone over the age of 13 could initiate a citizens’ petition to call for presidential action. If they could get 25,000 fellow citizens in a single American state to sign on the White House would receive it and would, at the very least, give the proposal a hearing and then produce a formal response within a month. Really. 

So far at least, most of the petitions submitted only have a few thousand electronic signatures affixed to them, way below the threshold for action - and most of those petitions have only been able to collect signatures from across the entire nation, rather than from within a single state as the initiative requires. Not surprisingly, during the life of this programme especially popular petitions have demanded the White House’s secret beer-making formula and national legalization of marijuana. The White House answered the first one in the affirmative. The second one - no, not now, not yet. 

In the wake of the recent presidential election, petitions have poured in from more than 30 states, mostly those that went for Mitt Romney in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions, to allow their respective states to secede from the United States. Really. On the face of this, one might think this question has already been answered decisively in the negative. In fact, the country is in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the war that settled that issue rather definitively. Or, put another way, henceforth, the phrase would be, “the United States is”, not “are.”

Regardless of that result in 1865, sometimes the idea comes back to some politicians. The Washington Post noted the other day that then-Tennessee Rep. Zach Wamp, a Republican, “suggested in 2010 that some states might have to ‘consider separation from this government’ should the leadership in Washington not change. ‘I hope that the American people will go to the ballot box in 2010 and 2012 so that states are not forced to consider separation from this government,’ he said.” 

Hopes also seem to spring eternal among some human breasts that the results of 6 November can be rolled back, despite that fairly definitive result as well. But, if not for the whole country, then perhaps it might just for places like Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Alabama, Mississippi and the like. But, now, here’s the thing, the citizens of such states don’t seem to realize that one of the benefits of being in that larger nation is that it is a genuine financial bonanza for them. They are, in fact, the ultimate moochers - while those dreaded blue states that voted for Obama are the makers.

In almost every case, the states where these secession petitions are coming from are states where they receive significantly more in the way of federal largesse (in the way of payments to individuals and spending on everything a country buys and pays for) than they actually pay in taxes in the aggregate. 

Louisiana, with more than 28,000 petitioners by Tuesday this week gets about $1.45 in federal funds for every $1 it pays in taxes. Alabama, meanwhile, rakes in $1.71 for each dollar paid over; South Carolina gets $1.38 for its dollar; and Missouri gains $1.29 for each dollar paid. On the other hand, New York (a typical blue state) only gets $.79 for each dollar it pays to Washington, while Michigan receives $.85 per dollar and the swing state of Colorado has the same bad fiscal luck as New York. 

As a result, if a swathe of Southern or Plains states actually did break away, taxes on the rest of the country could go down, the national debt could get paid off more effectively, and the country would eventually owe less to those dreaded puppet masters over in Beijing than it does now. Come to think of it, Mitt Romney’s economic plan (or at least one of them) could actually be put into effect for the remaining states. 

Of course, on the other hand, the new country would increasingly look like a candidate for foreign aid and would probably have to petition the Chinese to build the next new football stadium that was needed – let alone paying for health care and old age pensions or national defence expenditures. Maybe the citizens of the various blue states should petition the president to expel all those red states as a way of getting a grip on the country’s financial problems. The biggest expenditure might be replacing all those 50 star flags with ones that have fewer stars on them.

Meanwhile, in Europe, there are similar – rather more serious - efforts afoot to shift those boundaries and borders. As the Financial Times reported the other day, “Catalans favour a vote on independence despite Madrid’s warnings it would be illegal. Under the pressures of recession, fragile public finances and political grievances that have smouldered for decades, if not centuries, Europe is witnessing a rise in separatism and regionalism that is testing the resilience of well-established states. Independence movements in Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders are capturing votes and the public imagination as they seek to break away or gain more autonomy from Spain, Belgium and the UK.”

And in fact, Scotland is due to have a referendum on changing its status as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while the Catalan region of Spain, the Flanders half of Belgium and the German-speaking region of Alto-Adige in Northern Italy are all angling for renegotiations of their respective statuses in some way. Depending on whom one asks, the goal is full independence, local sovereignty or a new, as-yet-undefined association with another neighbouring nation, as in the case of that one northern Italian province in a movement towards Austria. (Austria did in fact rule the region for many centuries as part of the Habsburg Empire.) 

Some political scientists and international lawyers have argued that by being in the EU and benefitting from that giant tariff-free market, regions like these should have more options than simply falling into place in accordance with the boundaries that are the inheritance of centuries of European conflict. Belgium is an artificial country expressly designed as a neutral zone between the perpetually warring nations of France and Germany/Prussia, while Catalonia is part of Spain because Ferdinand and Isabella married and then fought the Moorish kingdom of Granada together at the end of the 15th century rather than any inevitable sociological, historical, political, linguistic, cultural logic that makes them one state, rather than two. And as for Scotland, just ask Alex Salmond or Sean Connery.

And, in fact, this is no small, academic notion. Even as recently as at the collapse of the Soviet system, there came to be 15 successor states in the geographical space once occupied by the Soviet Union (and even more if one listens credulously to the murmuring coming from Tatars and would-be citizens of the Republic of Transnistria). One will look long and hard to find Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia on a map anymore – and all of these major geographical and political changes are less than 25 years old.

On the African continent, of course, the principle of the inviolability of the national borders was adopted shortly after independence came to most of the continent’s states. With few exceptions, it has been adhered to ever since the 1960s. The exceptions are what are particularly interesting of course. Eritrea was finally allowed to split from Ethiopia, but maybe that was simply because the two had only shared a common colonial status for a few years under the Italians in the run-up to World War II. 

On the other hand, when Nigeria and the Cameroons became independent, the British mandated portion – in two non-contiguous sections – was allowed to be divided, as part joined Nigeria and the other part joined Cameroon. Tanzania was allowed to assimilate the colony of Zanzibar, but Morocco and Mauritania have not been allowed to peaceably absorb Spanish Sahara even until now (Mauritania eventually ceded its claim so as to be let alone by the territory’s rebels). South Sudan was allowed to split off from Sudan, although Biafra was not accepted as a separate nation from Nigeria.

Of course, southern Africa is also an amalgam of areas with different histories, and with pieces added or subtracted in accord with the whims of Clio. It wasn’t until 1910 that the old Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and Cape Colony (along with Pondoland) were actually joined together as one state, and the temporary association of Swaziland as part of the Transvaal’s remit was rescinded. Some years after that, some local (white) politicians had their eye on a greater Union of South Africa that would have stretched as far north as Northern Rhodesia – producing an economic giant but a geopolitical and sociological nightmare.

But what holds the Western Cape to the rest of the current country of South Africa these days? It probably isn’t tax and budget equity. Just like the blue states in the United States, the Western Cape gets less from government spending than its population would seem to argue for. Moreover, it can even be argued that its political traditions seem to be diverging from that of the rest of the nation. In fact, for the greater part of its existence, it was a separate political entity as the Cape Colony, something that became especially noticeable after it effectively gained the kind of home rule the settler dominions of Canada, New Zealand and Australia were heading towards in the late 19th century. Although it certainly was not an egalitarian, non-racial society by any stretch of the imagination, it did have a qualified voting franchise that did have some Africans and many more Coloured citizens allowed to vote – with the last tattered residues of that franchise only being abolished in the 1960s.

And so, is it possible to speculate what might happen if the economic and political circumstances in the rest of the nation became much more difficult: if the economy soured; unemployment soared; the mines began to be shuttered for lack of demand for their output; service protests multiplied dramatically; the rand started to tumble; and political life took a distinct turn for the starkly dramatic? This conversation has happened before. Even before the National Party took power, University of the Witwatersrand historian Arthur Keppel-Jones wrote a short, dystopic novel back in 1947, When Smuts Goes, that predicted the eventual partition of the country as the result of bitter civil war and a UN intervention. Think of that novel as a kind of academic paper tarted out in Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People or JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or The Life and Times of Michael K.

But, the thing of it is, what would be the critical threshold that could drive the people of the Cape into opting for independence, as it has already happened in the cases of Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia – and perhaps will in Scotland? Rather than the constant excoriation of the people in that sun-dappled, wine-rich, ocean-kissed region that seems to go on among too many politicians north of the Cape these days, perhaps a bit more energy might still be spent on thinking through how to draw upon the Cape’s successes and in bringing all the disparate parts of the country together for the future – before clever people look to the folks in Texas, Montana and Louisiana for their political inspiration. DM

Read more: 

  • “Secession petitions filed on White House Web site,” on The Washington Post
  • “U.S. Secession Petitions Now Collecting Signatures in 34 States,” on Slate
  • “US election: Unhappy Americans ask to secede from US,” on the BBC
  • “The Confederacy of Takers,” on The Washington Post
  • Petition for Texas to secede from US reaches threshold for White House response at US News
  • Census 2011: Anomalies could disadvantage some provinces at the Mail and Guardian

Photo: Table Mountain looms over Cape Town's Waterfront district, September 30, 2010.  REUTERS/Steve James

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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