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Why governments fear secessionist movements

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Catalonia declared independence on 27 October 2017 despite harsh crackdowns by the Spanish government, creating a constitutional crisis for that country. But Catalonia is far from unique. In fact, we just had a secession declaration right here in South Africa. This raises the question, is secession good or bad? And for whom?

Spain consists of 17 autonomous regions (and two autonomous cities on the North African coast). And almost every one of these has an active separatist movement that seeks independence from Spain.

Perhaps the best known of these is the Basque Country, which straddles northern Spain and south-western France. It rose to notoriety because its nationalist movement had a paramilitary wing, known as ETA, which has carried out numerous attacks since its formation in 1959. It killed more than 800 people, many of them civilians, and was widely treated as a terrorist organisation. After several abortive ceasefires, ETA was finally disarmed in April of this year, not having achieved its goal of Basque independence.

In Europe alone nearly 100 separatist movements are active in 26 nation-states. In Asia, there are about 75 active groups. In the Americas there are over 40, 12 of which are in the USA. In Australia and New Zealand, there are six or seven. In Africa, there are 45 or so active movements that seek their own state. Two – Eritrea and South Sudan – recently gained independence, neither of them peacefully.

In the EU, there is much grumbling about the faceless bureaucrats in far-off Brussels. In the US, Congress has a notoriously low approval rating, averaging only 18% over the last 10 years. Even though power is explicitly devolved to the states, people routinely complain about the suits in far-off Washington. And very often, the grumblers are right. Distant politicians on fat salaries are rarely in touch with the common people. The larger and more centralised a government gets, the more it imposes one-size-fits-all solutions on a diverse population, leaving people with fewer choices about their own destinies.

There are good economic reasons to favour decentralisation of power. According to Frans Rautenbach’s excellent new book, South Africa Can Work: How a free market and decentralised government will make us a winning nation, countries within the European Union have done significantly worse – in terms of GPD per capita, GDP growth, employment rate and economic freedom – than Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, which stayed out. He also shows that less centralised government correlates with lower perceptions of corruption and happier citizens.

So why is it that people always complain about strong, central governments, but they keep voting those same governments into power?

Those who seek to wield power over others always claim to have good intentions. They say they’ll fight for the poor and oppressed, or combat corruption, or right a historic injustice, or bring peace to a troubled land. But by definition, they do not believe that these good things could be achieved if people were free to act in their own best interest, provided that they do not infringe upon the same right of everyone else.

However well-intended, the exercise of power means forcing people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, or preventing them from doing something they otherwise would. And the more those politicians get used to wielding such power, the easier it becomes to justify grandiose public works projects, creating jobs of dubious value for supporters, or appointing the well-connected to positions they do not merit. If you doubt that corruption pays, consider how successful corrupt governments are at not serving their people, but at perpetuating themselves.

National borders have never really been about how nations self-identify. They have always been about access to resources and the ability to impose taxes. Politics is about how, and on whom, those revenues are spent. The larger a country, the more people it can tax. The larger a government, the more professional politicians and civil servants it can employ.

The problem is, as Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And as Billy Connolly said, “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one. Don’t vote, it encourages them.”

If politics was really about the good of the people, it would matter what those people want. Governments make a show of democracy, but all people are really allowed to do is choose who they want to rule them. No national constitution anywhere in the world (except for St. Kitts and Nevis, and Ethiopia) permits secession. It would remove a part of the tax base, which threatens the prosperity of either the government’s corrupt cronies, or the ruling party’s constituents, or both.

Even if constitutions did permit it, the same pecuniary motives create a democratic resistance to secession. Richer regions – which feel they contribute more to the national purse than they receive back in services – are more likely to want to secede. Catalonia, for example, contributes more in GDP and tax (19%) than it receives back in services (15%). The Spanish government says what it receives is close to its share of the population (16%), but that only serves to make Catalonia’s point. By contrast, poorer regions, which are to some extent dependent on central government funds, are unlikely to secede, and likely to oppose the secession of other regions. This is why people vote for socialist measures, which they think will benefit them in the short term, at the expense of their own long-term economic prosperity.

Scotland’s independence referendum, for example, was not determined by a sense of nationalism, but of economic pragmatism. On its own tax base, it simply wouldn’t be able to sustain the level of public services it enjoys as part of Great Britain. When Britain subsequently decided to leave the European Union, everything changed. If Scotland were to host a new referendum, the question wouldn’t be whether Scots are any more or less Scottish than they were in 2014, but whether Great Britain or the EU could offer it the best deal. It’s always about who gets to benefit from the government’s power to tax.

So centralised governments are the result of the short-term economic interests of those who support the government, on one hand, and patronage and corruption, on the other. Governments perpetuate themselves, and can only grow, by their very nature, and voters are incentivised to let this happen by public spending.

South Africa’s government is a poster child for the self-serving corruption that besets a powerful, centralised state. Some people still labour under the misconception that the government is all about redressing the injustices of apartheid and building a better life for all. It is patently obvious that it isn’t. The government works for nobody but itself and its cronies. It does business by means of bribes and commissions. It doles out contracts to friends and benefactors. It co-opts and corrupts big business and multinational corporations. It plunders the coffers of the state not to advance the public good, but to satisfy private greed.

When it does provide services, pay social grants, create jobs that nobody else thought it necessary to create, or hand out lunch packets and T-shirts, its motive is not altruism. It does so simply to bribe enough voters to keep them in power, so the pigs can keep their snouts in the trough.

If it were easier to migrate, many South Africans – especially the vast numbers of unemployed – would probably do so. But it is hard and expensive to leave a country to make a home elsewhere, and unlike the people of the Middle East or North Africa, we are not so conveniently located near rich countries. If we weren’t surrounded by countries even poorer and more corrupt than us, all of us hemmed in by a great desert to the north and two great oceans on either side, emigration would not be limited to the rich and well-to-do, and immigrants from poorer neighbours like Zimbabwe would prefer to go elsewhere.

But there is another great problem with secession. By the principle of freedom of association, how various groups define themselves and their culture shouldn’t matter. But for all sorts of reasons, it does matter in practice.

Many separatist groups are united by ethnicity, tribe, or language. Many are nationalist in nature. And nationalism is an inherently ugly motive. It defines people by ancestry or the accident of their birth, rather than by the content of their character. Nationalism is a form of collectivism that renders the social group more important than the individual. It can create feelings of superiority that lead to oppression, or a sense of victimhood that fosters xenophobia. Far too often, nationalism fuels racist and violent behaviour. Just like patriotism, nationalism often fans the flames of conflict and war. Nationalism kills.

In South Africa, this problem is even worse than elsewhere. In case you didn’t know, a declaration of secession happened in South Africa just the other day. On 24 September, 2017 the group Stop South African Genocide announced that some bloke calling himself King Khoebaha Calvin Cornelius III, the supposed heir to the “Royal House of the Khoisan Nation”, declared the independence of a United States of Good Hope. It would secede from the Republic of South Africa, and be ruled jointly by the “Khoisan Nation”, the “Afrikaner Nation”, the “Eurokaner Nation”, and the “Coloured Nation”.

Let’s see. There is no genocide in South Africa, although some white fringe groups would like you to believe otherwise. An analysis of where murder happens in South Africa confirms this.

Neither the Khoi-khoi nor the San, nor indeed the Khoisan, have ever had a royal house. A search for “Khoisan royalty” does turn up photographs, but only because they too are royalty-free. King Cornelius III doesn’t exist anywhere online except in the report of the secession.

I’ve never heard of a “Eurokaner Nation”, but there’s a Twitter handle for it, so it must be real. It features a blatantly racist avatar and a declaration, in French, that, “We are above all a European people of white race, of Greek and Latin culture, and of Christian religion.” So yeah, they’re racists, and they’re not a nation.

According to a member of the far-right group Front National South Africa with a very tenuous grasp of history, they’re “a stillborn nation”, consisting of people of European descent who do not speak Afrikaans. The Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging (AWB), a separatist group that has rather more substantial credentials, issued a statement saying they have no clue who any of these people are, calls the declaration “high treason”, and worries that it could lead to violence.

Unlike the Spanish government, the South African government did not respond to this major constitutional crisis, perhaps because they were laughing so hard.

Alongside the AWB, other far-right Afrikaans groupings also continue to seek a country of their own, a quarter-century after being denied at the constitutional negotiations that heralded the new South Africa. As was the case then, they are still feuding over who among them has the right to speak for white Afrikaners, or even what to call them. At the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, Afrikaners were admitted as members in 2008, as represented by the Freedom Front Plus. Its former leader, Pieter Mulder, has said that the prominent discussions about secession or regional autonomy in the rest of the world ought to spark new, mature debate about the self-determination rights of South African minorities (meaning predominantly Afrikaners).

During the negotiations for a democratic South Africa, one of the major objections to the idea of an independent state for Afrikaners (or any other minority, for that matter) was the belief that white people would claim rich parts of the country, leaving the rest of the population mired in rural poverty. Another was that it would set a precedent that could be followed by Zulus, Vendas, Cape coloureds, and who knows how many other ethnic groups. During the constitutional negotiations, there were many proposals for an Afrikaner “volkstaat”, and none proved to be realistic, just and viable.

Carel Boshoff, an Afrikaner intellectual and son-in-law of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, took a different approach. In 1990, the apartheid government offered Orania, a remote, dilapidated workers’ town, for sale in its entirety. Boshoff, through a company, made an offer and bought it as private property. It was administered by a private foundation and was never incorporated into a district municipality. The “owners” of properties in Orania actually own shares in the company. New arrivals are interviewed and are required to conform to Afrikaner culture. This keeps the town white in the same way that a venue hosting a “sokkiejol” or playing “Boeremusiek” would keep it white. Technically, there is no mention of race, but the smell of it hangs in the air like cordite after gunfire.

In principle, people ought to be free to do what they wish on their own private property, and that includes the freedom to admit or deny access to anyone, on any grounds or none at all. In South African law, this is not the case for private properties offering services of any kind to the general public, because it was (quite reasonably) believed that “right of admission reserved” laws would be abused to perpetuate racist discrimination. Orania remains an exception, however. In 2000, an agreement was struck between Orania and the South African Cabinet, confirmed by a high court ruling, that established the legality of the town and its admissions policy.

A different secessionist group, The Cape Party, founded in 2007, claims to seek legal and peaceful means to win independence for the Western Cape province. I hate to rain on its parade, but there is none. Secession would require a constitutional amendment, or a shooting war. And although it claims to base its desire for secession on economic grounds, it doesn’t get more than a few words into its website before the phrase “racial and cultural oppression” turns up.

Just as a competitive market for supplying goods and services produces better value than a monopolistic market, because it gives consumers a choice, a world of smaller governments competing to serve citizens will be better off than one with larger, more centralised governments. In an ideal world, governments would be small and local, and crossing borders would involve few restrictions.

But it isn’t an ideal world. Governments are constitutionally designed to be incapable of shrinking. People are constitutionally prohibited from seceding, and cannot freely choose where they live unless they are already wealthy enough to be a taxable asset.

Spain will crush Catalonia’s bid for independence, with armed force if necessary. It has already shown itself willing to do so. Courts in Germany and Italy have declared secession to be unconstitutional. The European Union can’t allow the precedent that a Catalonian secession would set, because it might not only cause the breakup of the EU, but the breakup of several of its member states.

Besides the constitutionality and self-serving economics of it all, a nationalist pall hangs over many secession movements. In South Africa, this is compounded by a legacy of racism that pervades the politics of secession, self-determination and decentralisation. Whether justified or not, that is simply how the majority of the country views it, which makes the chances of a constitutional amendment to permit secession vanishingly small.

I wish we lived in an ideal world, but we do not. We live in a world corrupted by racism, nationalism, and other collectivist programmes. It’s a world that is very far removed from principles of individual freedom and self-determination. Self-perpetuating and ever-growing governments are a cancer that will not go peacefully. DM


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