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Fact check — Is it likely the Western Cape could become an independent state?

Fact check — Is it likely the Western Cape could become an independent state?
Cape Town early Spring morning blue hues, from Blouberg. Photographer: Christa Rossouw

There are at least two political parties campaigning for the upcoming elections on a single issue: Cape independence. But is the promise that the Western Cape could secede from the rest of South Africa actually based on fact?

Both the Cape Independence Party and the Referendum Party have been promising the South African electorate that a vote for their parties can lead to a referendum which may ultimately trigger the Western Cape province leaving the rest of the country.

The CapeXit campaign dates back to 2007 but it’s only in recent years that it has begun sustained political organising. The Cape Independence Party won more than 19,000 votes in the 2021 local government elections, enough for two seats in the Cape Town council.

The basic theory of the campaign is that the Western Cape is being held back from achieving its full economic and social potential through its legal and political attachment to the rest of the country. It has also been accused of dog-whistle racism for pointing to the Western Cape’s racial makeup as evidence that the province is “just different”.

Advocates of Cape secession point to the fact that the most recent opinion poll undertaken by Victory Research on whether residents of the Western Cape want the province to secede have returned results suggesting a majority is in favour. It should be noted, however, that the sample size of this poll was very small — just under 1,000 people.

But regardless of the popularity of the idea or its actual merits, are the pro-independence parties promising something that is actually legally viable?

Political party the Freedom Front Plus believes so. In an opinion piece in February 2024, the party’s Western Cape leader Corné Mulder wrote: “Are more powers for the Western Cape, which could lead to Cape secession, unfeasible and impossible? Don’t believe it for one moment. We are in Africa, and here anything is possible”.

But “more powers” for the Western Cape is a very different proposition to full secession of the province.

The DA has been pushing for the adoption of the Western Cape Provincial Powers Bill, which it says would give the province greater autonomy to improve service delivery without necessitating the province leaving the country.

But legal experts say: not so fast. Even the idea of devolving certain core government functions to provinces is unlikely to pass Constitutional muster. UCT law professor Pierre de Vos has previously written that a constitutional amendment would probably be required to allow a province to take over policing duties, for instance.

As for the plan for the Western Cape to secede: the first step, its advocates say, is to hold a referendum on the matter. It may actually be legally permissible for the President or the Premier to call a referendum on a certain issue. But even if they do so, the results are not binding in any way. They can just be ignored.

Furthermore, as Pierre de Vos has written elsewhere: “Questions of secession are not a provincial matter. They are a national matter. Only the national executive and the national Parliament can legally bring about secession through, among others, amendment of the Constitution”.

It is simply impossible to imagine a world in which South African law and politics line up to allow one of the nine provinces to assert itself as a separate country — especially since even parties like the DA do not support the idea.

As such, the CapeXit parties appear to be selling voters pipe dreams. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bianca Albesco says:

    Regardless of legal and political issues, secession by the Western Cape is unlikely to be economically viable. The WC has very limited resources in industry and agriculture – and is hopelessly dependent on the rest of the country for energy. This is why it has the country’s only nuclear power station and the wildly uneconomical gas turbine generators, which were only ever intended for peak loads.

    On the other hand, constitutional amendments which give provinces greater autonomy is probably a far more realistic and desirable objective.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Right. That is why the DA is going for greater provincial autonomy. It can do the job better locally than the central government can.

      In time the other provinces could do the same.

    • Gatiep Peterson says:

      The Western Cape has the most diversified economy in all of SA. Unlike SA the WC is not very dependent on commodity prices. Its economy is bigger than Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe combined.

      It absolutely can and will thrive alone

    • James Webster says:

      Neither has Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and many other very successful states. South Africa and Africa, are weighed down with resources and what good has it done them ? Success is predicated on honesty, innovation, a willingness to accept failure rather than deny it because it does not suit your narrative, hard work, discipline and intelligence, things South Africa as a whole appears to lack and the Cape appears to have.

  • Johan Buys says:

    There is a short end to the debate : ask who qualifies for citizenship.

    Born there?
    Lived there x amount of time?
    Own property there?

  • L Dennis says:

    To every party working to serve the people in true servant leadership be blessed. Thank you for your good leadership that are pushing for progress not regress to the betterment of our economy. It would have been great if all provinces became independent. I will keep on praying for our beloved country.

  • ST ST says:

    The time for people to decide to put borders in Africa whichever way they fancy is well and truly over. This is a national issue. Cape Town belongs to SA. The issues the SA and Africa has are largely the legacy of what happened before. You can’t blame a product for being a certain way if you put a cocktail of ingredients that were never going to produce what you now want. Become part of the solution of exit yourself.

    That pipe dream started with the belief that apartheid will rule forever, a delusion now shared by some of ANC.

    You move around the world and even forget what colour you are. You’re just human. You come back home, there it is again! The delusion of exclusivity.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Well Rebecca – that wasn’t even close to a “fact check”. It is a ramble through what-ifs and maybes, all disguised as a “fact check”. Disingenuous.

    CapExit is not a racist ambition – it is a desire for people of ALL races in the Western Cape (First Nation and others) to be free of the economic stifling of the forces of corruption, cadre deployment and gross government incompetence. We are sick and tired of it. And if the Western Cape is dependent on the rest of the country, it must therefore be costing the rest of the country money. Why not then send it off on its own and save a pile of money?
    You won’t, because Western Cape contributes more than it takes out.

  • Skinyela Skinyela says:

    1. Referendum has actually happened, in the past elections in which the secessionists contested power, and the Western Cape electorate have repeatedly and decidedly rejected the ‘idea’.
    2. The call is just an attempt to use gullible voters in order to get seats in national parliament, provincial
    legislatures and municipal councils.
    3. This is not dissimilar to Zuma who goes around RSA promising traditional leaders more powers if MK Party wins.

  • James Cunningham says:

    Singapore didn’t appear to be a viable candidate for independence but look what happened. The Indian /Pakistan border introduced in 1947 is longer than that of the Western Cape but nobody wants to get rid of it. Cape Independence may get short shift from the intellectual blob but it is in every Kapie’s mind. Its not something that they want to happen. It’s just that they feel that if its a choice between independence or living in a failed state then they would rather take their chances with independence. In the chaos that will follow the impending election, legal niceties, I fear, will mean little.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Nicely put James

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Right. I first visited Singapore just after independence. The place was all action. Every time I went there the progress was visible. Zille’s tweet was 100% correct.

    • Peter Holmes says:

      Agreed. An orderly transition assumes regard for legal niceties (as reflected in the article and most of the comments). Never say never; independence could happen, and may well be traumatic – think of the break up of Yugoslavia and the USSR, not to mention places like South Sudan.

  • Gatiep Peterson says:

    Sorry but this is an opinion piece posing as “fact check.” Of course you only consulted one source (Pierre De Vos) who is a known to be anti cape independence.

    You didn’t ask any other legal opinion, which makes this Pierre De Vos’s opinion and not a fact check.

    This is no better than disinformation that the Russians would pose

  • James Webster says:

    Proffesduh de Vos’ bias and skill at twisting any story to suit his own narrative are truly incredible. His lack of objectivity, his partiality and his subjugation to woke ideology are highlighted yet again by the rebuttal of his twisted commentary on the Wilgenhof saga by the 3,500 member Wilgenhof Alumni Association. The extent of his bias and his willingness to manipulate the telling of his own experiences at Wilgenhof to suit the woke agenda call into question the objectivity of any statement he makes. In this instance, it suits his own, and the ANC’s, agenda, that Cape Independence be considered impermissible. He, being an academic lackey of the ANC, hates the fact the Western Cape is very successfully run by the DA, therefore he will do anything and everything he can to subvert the aspirations of Cape Independence. In line with the ANC’s diktats, Cape Independence dare not appear possible, because more honest and unwoke South Africans, unaffected by ANC and left-wing propaganda, might wish to leave the corrupt misrule of the ANC. God forbid that a portion of SA, which is functional, unlike most of SA, should want to leave behind those people who refuse to move on from the past, who use the past to excuse their failure and corruption, and who refuse to acknowledge that merit is more important than ethnicity.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      Nonsense! Pierre de Vos is 100% on target. The SA Constitution determines the make-up of the Republic of South Africa and it clearly states that the Western Cape is one of its’ provinces. So that has to be changed as a minimum; and I am not precluding that even more of the Constitution will have to change. Furthemore, as far as I know the Constitution can only be changed with a two-thirds majority, not of the Western Cape, but of the WHOLE SOUTH AFRICA. I also remember something like that two-thirds of the provinces in SA must agree to a Constitutional change before it passes. So which five of the other nine provinces do these Western Cape-only political parties want to support them? I state it to you that no other province will support such a thing, and no nationwide political party with significant support will either. Just because they want it does not mean that it is possible. A bit of minor decentralisation such as that the DA in the Western Cape wants (for instance that the Western Cape must take control over its’ own police) is however more realistic – even the Gauteng premier of the ANC desires to take control over the Gauteng law and order issues, which shows that support for that one-issue decentralisation has some support.

      • Skinyela Skinyela says:

        But one must admire the genius of these guys who are campaigning under that banner, they have found a niche in the electorate’s market.

        Lesotho has a similar Party and always get some few seats in parliament through promising the Lesotho citizens that they will fight for the return of Lesotho land(a big chunk of the Free State Province) from RSA.

        They know very well that it won’t happen, in fact you have more chances of Lesotho becoming part of RSA some day than part of Free State becoming Lesotho.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      . . . No leader that is really credible will even think of supporting seccession for the Western Cape, because contrary to the naive beliefs of these provincial organisations, the Western Cape economy is, just like every other region, country or municipality south of the equator is driven by Gauteng. They would do well to take note of the economic consequences of Brexit for the UK – the Brexiteers said more or less the same as they do, and the reality is that the UK economy shrinked by about 5% as a result. But the UK is an island which always had its’ own currency, which has always been very strong. So my take is that the Western Cape economy is going to shrink by far more than just 5%; it does not even have its’ own stock exchange or army. And seccession will also mean the loss of the major economic role that all the activity around parliament gives them, when parliament then relocates to somewhere else. So it is easy to make all kinds of crazy promises or to vote for such promises when you are angry or disappointed, but things can always go even further “south” than it already is. Even Zimbabwe at its worst is not the furthest that a country can fall. WC seccessionists would do well to keep that in mind; that the demography of the Western Cape is different from that of the rest of SA has absolutely nothing to do with how well it goes there.

  • Roger Verite says:

    From the “Republic of Hout Bay’ bumper stickers in the 80’s to the CapeXit mutterings starting in the 00’s – the secession debate is either amusing or laughable depending on how deeply one has considered it.

    Having read through the sampling methodolgy for the poll (useful that they included it), the poll was conducted in 2021, over 8 days using cell phone numbers as a randomization to sample. This result had 886 results for persons over 18 and residing in the Western Cape. Quote from the CAIG article -> “Support for independence itself is now at 46.2% of all registered voters (with 49.6%opposing and 4.2% undecided), and 42% amongst all adults in the province when unregistered voters are included.”

    However, support for a referendum is at 58% (of registered voters) which is the ‘majority’ that Rebecca somehow managed to suggest that supports independence.

    This took 22mins to ‘fact-check’.

  • michael bridgens says:

    Not going to happen. Any hype about it, whether in media, or as an agenda for political support, is tantamount to clickbait.

  • Andre Swart says:

    South Africa is not a country … it’s never been a country.

    Because by the 1909 South Africa act the British parliament imposed a unification of 2 independent republics, (the ZAR and the OFS) and 2 British colonies (KZN and the Cape) .

    The people in the mentioned 4 regions didn’t ask for a union it was forced down on them.

    Since 1909 the forced unification didn’t work and never will work.

    I say, ‘split up the region in at least 12 free nation states’ and allow each one the CHOICE to affilliate with a federal (canton) system, like Switzerland.

  • Ike Boss says:

    Someone, for the life of me I can’t recall who, famously said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

    Cape Independence is worth the effort. Difficult, challenging. Who wants easy battles? Let’s have that referendum and see what the people of the Western Cape want. Then we take next steps.

  • Neill Guyhrie says:

    And the unwavering support of the ANC government for a separate Palestinian state? More duplicity and hypocrisy.

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