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Dreaming of a Cape Republic: Secession may promise liberal salvation, but faces high hurdles

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.

Amid growing pessimism about the economic and political prospects of South Africa, liberty-minded people have two options: stay and compromise with a social-democratic or democratic socialist order, or leave. But could they stay – and leave?

You will not sell liberalism to black people. Stop trying to,” said Piet Croucamp, senior lecturer in Political Studies and International Relations at North West University to an audience at the 34th annual Libertarian Spring Seminar (LibSem) held last weekend in Velddrif. “Libertarians are living in a dream world. South Africans will never vote that way. They won’t even vote for liberalism.”

Painful though this might be to hear, it is hard to dispute. Supporters of libertarian or classical liberal principles (like me) have good reason to believe it leads to objectively better outcomes for all, including the poor, and holds the moral high ground compared to ideologies that place less value on individual freedom and more trust in governments. However, the electoral record of the Democratic Alliance (DA) shows this kind of thinking has limited appeal to the masses.

Some attribute the DA’s recent decline in popularity to its abandonment of classical liberal principles in favour of identity politics under Mmusi Maimane, the party leader who succeeded Helen Zille in 2015. In the 2019 elections it lost 470,000 votes, or 11.5% of its vote tally in 2014.

Only hours before I wrote this, Zille returned to the party in the powerful position of chairperson of the Federal Council, the party’s highest decision-making body outside a full elective congress. Zille has been open about her desire to return the party to its classical liberal roots.

However, even at the peak of its popularity, while still under Zille’s leadership, it received only 22.2% of the vote, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of liberalism from the broader electorate. The notion that it could significantly grow the appeal of liberalism by packaging it in a way that is palatable to voters who associate the party with white resistance to black rule must remain speculative, at best.

Croucamp said it was surprising that a compromise between white nationalism and black nationalism in the early 1990s led to a liberal democratic constitution. This compromise left both parties better off than they were before. But such political compromises always get renegotiated. Such a renegotiation is currently under way; this time, he said, driven by the far left, primarily the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Had Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma won at the ANC’s elective congress at Nasrec in 2018, there would have been no room for negotiation,” he said. “It would have been enforced.”

Under Cyril Ramaphosa, however, there has been a marked move away from revolutionary rhetoric and towards economic pragmatism.

There is still a strong popular feeling that whites ought to acknowledge that they “stole the land”, Croucamp said. If you interpret that to refer not to legal ownership of specific properties, but to dispossessionary laws such as the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act of 1970, there is considerable merit to such a claim. The popular feeling that redress and justice were not achieved under the 1994 compromise led to the present impetus for restitution, redistribution, and indeed expropriation without compensation.

The government (as distinct from the ANC) now largely recognises that expropriation without compensation will not fly under international law, said Croucamp.

Ramaphosa knows this. The report from the Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture also recognises that expropriation without compensation should proceed only in very specific circumstances, such as abandoned property, unused state land, land already occupied by labour tenants, and (considerably more controversially) land held only for speculative purposes.

An even clearer signal of a pragmatic turn in government policy came with the publication of the National Treasury’s discussion document on economic strategy for South Africa.

The paper is replete with common-sense proposals all aimed at achieving the economic growth South Africa desperately needs,” wrote the Free Market Foundation (FMF). Although its support for the paper was qualified by “concerning elements”, it continued: “If Mboweni’s paper can be taken as a true step in a new direction, a direction of more individual freedom, South Africa will see green shoots of recovery almost immediately.”

Overall, the paper produced by the Minister and the Treasury should be applauded and supported,” wrote the Institute for Race Relations, “although it could go further in suggesting additional ways to liberalise the economy. This could be a first step in implementing the reforms which the country so badly needs.”

The Treasury paper, said Croucamp, was the product of a quiet meeting between high-level government officials including the president and the minister of finance on one hand, and rating agencies and the World Bank on the other. Essentially, it is the answer to the question: “What will it take not to be downgraded?”

It recognises that South Africa cannot afford liberation ideology, and moves towards economic pragmatism. But, Croucamp added, “you cannot expect them to become liberal”.

We will never be a liberal democracy again,” he said. “The new compromise will be about pragmatism, and more akin to social democracy.”

He said South Africans could either make peace with the new compromise or leave. “Those of us with open minds will go somewhere else.”

The recent signals of reform have done little to raise the mood among those who believe the government has slid too far into a morass of socialism and corruption, however. Libertarians and classical liberals view South Africa’s crime, captured institutions, bankrupt and dysfunctional state-owned enterprises, electricity blackouts, unsustainable debt and junk status with despair.

Many who have the means to do so have already left the country. This is a significant reason, besides the gutting of the South African Revenue Service under Tom Moyane, a crony of Jacob Zuma’s, why tax revenues are falling substantially short of expectations.

Some, like the Afrikaans trade union movement Solidarity, have vowed to stay but create parallel institutions to “state-proof” themselves, their wealth, and their businesses. A few pin their hopes on cryptocurrency and other blockchain applications to escape the greedy, wasteful and coercive grip of the government.

There’s a small but growing movement that wants to stay in South Africa, but secede to form an independent country, however. The idea proved very popular among the assembled libertarians at LibSem, eliciting pockets of applause.

The Cape Party seeks secession for the Western Cape, most of the Northern Cape, part of the Eastern Cape, and one municipality in the Free State, and proposes direct democracy and free markets, along the lines of the Swiss canton system.

Its leader, Jack Miller, said South Africa is not a natural country, and its union was imposed by Britain. It includes numerous regions that are dominated by relatively homogeneous cultural and language groups, such as Zulu-speakers in KwaZulu-Natal, Xhosa speakers in the Eastern Cape, Tswana-speakers in North West, Sotho-speakers in the Free State, Venda-speakers in Limpopo, Swati-speakers in parts of Mpumalanga, and Afrikaans-speakers in the Western Cape and Northern Cape. Each could make a reasonable case for secession from a unitary South Africa.

He said the impulse for secession comes from the complete disillusionment with the state.

In 2007, when we were founded, I was considered crazy, a nutcase,” he said. “But secession has become quite a hot topic worldwide. This message, its time has come.”

The philosophical underpinning of secession is that one ought to be free to both enter and leave relationships at will. This is no less true for membership of a state than it is for dating relationships, marriages, employment contracts, or business relationships.

Secession could be motivated by the desire to leave something bad, create something new, or to protect something good, Miller said. “The threat of secession keeps states on their toes. Without secession, liberty is as safe as a politician’s promise.”

South Africa’s Constitution, in section 235, provides for “the right of self-determination of any community sharing a common cultural and language heritage, within a territorial entity in the Republic or in any other way, determined by national legislation”.

The United Liberty Alliance (ULA) is another secessionist movement. Unlike the Cape Party, it describes itself as a civil rights movement, and not a political party. It seeks independence for a similar region, but embracing a part of North West and into Gauteng to include Pretoria. It proposes to secede based not on common ethnic background, but on the basis of common culture, language and religion.

Even so, it describes its target population in explicitly ethnic terms as: “The Khoi and San, the aboriginal peoples of Southern Africa; People from Continental Europe, the British Isles and even North America who settled in southern Africa from as early as 1652; Slaves and indentured individuals brought to southern Africa before 1900, primarily from Malaysia, India and Indonesia.”

Its leader, Hein Marx, pointed to section 231 of the Constitution, which binds the state to respect international agreements.

There are several international agreements to which South Africa acceded that provide for self-determination, particularly for groups that share ethnicity, culture, language or religion. Among these is the African Union’s Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which states in Article 20: “All peoples… shall have the right to self-determination. They shall freely determine their political status and shall pursue their economic and social development according to the policy they have freely chosen.”

South Africa has also ratified the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), both of which, alongside the better-known Universal Declaration of Human Rights, form part of the International Bill of Human Rights.

The ICCPR and ICESCR have the same Article 1, which says: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. … The States Parties to the present Covenant… shall promote the realisation of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.”

That Charter, in its first article, says one of the purposes of the UN is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.

Perhaps recognising that although South Africa ratified these agreements, it has not passed legislation that would make them legally binding on the question of secession (or even just self-determination), Marx said his group’s focus was on seeking recognition not only from the UN, but individual foreign countries, via their domestic embassies.

Des Palm is a director of CapeXit, a non-profit that seeks the independence of the Cape region, including the Northern and parts of the Eastern Cape, but starting with the Western Cape, for “minority groups, indigenous to the Cape, sharing a common language and culture”. He said that his organisation also sought independence not under national law, but under international law.

He highlighted a major hurdle, however, which is simply garnering enough support for the inevitable referendum that such a move would require. “I am a chess player, and if I were the South African government, I would grant you a referendum in 30 days, or 60 days,” Palm said. “You will end up in a mad scramble to get majority support from the people in your proposed area, which may mean anything from 1.5-million to two million of the voters registered in this area. And when you fail, the government and the world will say, ‘We gave you the opportunity, and the people do not support it’.”

The Cape Party commissioned a poll among voters shortly before the 2019 elections and found that among DA voters in the Western Cape, 66% support the idea of an independence referendum. However, only 52% of the respondents were DA voters, which leaves support for a referendum at around one-third of voters. CapeXit claims to have the support of 150,000 people, while the ULA claims 216,000 of its supporters (of a target of two million) have explicitly signed their support for secession.

There are also technical challenges, such as the division of national assets and national debt between the mother country and the seceding entity. Although the Western Cape could nominally afford to secede, in the sense that its per-capita GDP exceeds the average in South Africa, and it contributes far more to the fiscus than it receives back from government, it is far from clear that the government would be content with letting it shoulder only a small part of the national debt, in proportion to its population size. What to do about assets such as the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, and the cost of its eventual decommissioning, will also pose a challenge.

There are other reasons to doubt that secession would ever become a reality in South Africa, however. International secession movements may be plentiful, but they have not been particularly successful or peaceful.

South Sudan’s secession is still marred by civil strife. Hong Kong’s protesters are being suppressed by a police force aligned with China, and could ultimately face the might of the Chinese military. Nine leaders of the Catalonian separatist movement were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their role in what Spain claims was an illegal – and seditious – independence referendum.

The only independence movement worldwide I can imagine succeeding peacefully would be that of Scotland, should the latter vote to do so. I doubt England has the appetite to resist its secession militarily, and both being free-trading countries, they could happily separate while still maintaining cordial commerce relationships.

There’s also the more thorny issue of racism among those seeking secession. The motto of the ULA is Ex Unitate Vires, which was the motto of the former National Party government. Whether such a clear appeal to the apartheid past will ever attract the required two-odd million votes in a referendum is hard to imagine.

Someone wearing a CapeXit shirt went on about how his people (meaning Afrikaners) came into a largely unpopulated South Africa and created one of the richest countries in the world, before “the world’s most stupid people took over and f****d it all up”. That is also not exactly a non-racial sentiment that would appeal to classical liberals.

Pragmatically, of course, those who secede don’t have to like those from whom they secede, provided they don’t infringe on their basic human rights. There is a precedent for secession based on common ethnic background (and ethnic hatred, for that matter) alone. But again, whether such sentiments will appeal to more than a small minority of disenchanted white people is highly doubtful.

Of the three, the Cape Party’s Miller made the most compelling argument in favour of secession. He quoted not only Thomas Jefferson on US states wishing to separate from the union (to which he said, “let us separate”), but also Vladimir Lenin, who said in 1916: “Socialism must achieve complete democracy and not only bring about the equality of nations but also give effect to the right to self-determination, ie the right to free political secession… A free union is a false phrase without the right to secede.”

Better yet, he cited Thabo Mbeki, who as former president said in 2010 that “in six months time, the people of Southern Sudan will be voting on self-determination, choosing between the options of unity or secession. The Sudanese people in all their formations, the African Union, and the rest of the international community, are together obliged to respect the freely expressed wishes of the people of Southern Sudan, and will do so regardless of the choice they make.”

There are compelling reasons to support the notion of a secession of the Western Cape, provided it be governed according to the liberal principles of individual liberty, equal rights and free markets. It is rather less compelling to awkwardly extend the secession area to include Pretoria.

It is positively distasteful to seek secession based on a hankering for the apartheid past. Even though a crude ethnic basis for secession may be justified in international law, it is unlikely to garner either the domestic votes or international support secession would require.

Even the most appealing secession proposals, however, will face high hurdles, including the improbability of ever gaining majority support in a referendum, and being able to negotiate a peaceful separation with the government of the remainder of the country.

I like some versions of the idea, but I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. DM