Opinionista Joshua Dickinson 30 July 2020

Western Cape secession is pie in the sky, no matter how you slice it

Calls for the Western Cape to secede from South Africa and become an independent state have become more strident as the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks economic devastation across the country. But it’s as likely to fly as an ostrich.

The lockdown and subsequent regulations imposed by the national government have created great anxiety for many who are looking down the deep dark rabbit hole of unemployment in our country. Consequently, it is understandable that the appetite for secession of the Western Cape from the Republic of South Africa has gained momentum from a mere romanticised dream held by a very small fragment of the country’s population to a booming campaign, enhanced by entities such as the Cape Party and Cape Independence movement, among others. The call for secession is notably energised from the burning reaction to national government-sanctioned illogical and irrational lockdown measures that have left a profoundly negative impact on local communities. 

It is unfortunate, however, that those who desire such an outcome do not necessarily fathom the logistics of such an exercise within our constitutional framework but are rather seemingly driven and infatuated over this professed Utopia, a probable result from drowning themselves in the red, white and blue cocktail of American media, where state rights are far more entrenched, courtesy of being a member of a federal union.

Secession of the Western Cape province is pure pie in the sky. It is a fantasy that should be immediately abandoned. Here is why. 

First and foremost, attention and critique must be directed towards the tactic that secessionists have used as the foundation for their holy grail – the demand for a referendum. 

Naturally, one would guess that such a referendum would be exclusive to Western Cape residents. However, the below breakdown can still apply to such a referendum if it were facilitated nationally, considering that we are a constitutional democracy.

A legitimate referendum of any nature would have to be facilitated by an accredited election management body such as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), or a private company such as Election Management Services in Africa (IEMSA) which is currently headed by Former IEC Commissioner, Terry Tselane and who administered the EFF’s national conference elections in December 2019. 

The IEC does not have the resources to spare for a referendum of this quality, whether it be provincial or nationwide. All reserves and funding need to be sustained for 2021’s local government election, especially bearing in mind the added challenges that Covid-19 will most certainly place on the IEC to deliver a fair and free election.

A private election facilitator would also require funding for this exercise – either from the private sector (more likely), or the Western Cape provincial government or national government (very unlikely as all money and resources within their respective budgets must be utilised in the fight against Covid-19 and to mitigate the negative effects of the lockdown).  

The typical Parliamentary public participation process is a pricey procedure. You would have unavoidable costs such as the setting up of town hall meetings, travel and accommodation expenses, among others. Even in the era of Covid-19, an exclusive virtual public participation process for an amendment of this significance comes attached with its own unique costs. 

A referendum is also a very expensive task. Considering our economic climate, it is highly improbable that any private funder would be willing to fork out so much from their own pocket. 

Nonetheless, suppose such a legitimate referendum does take place, and the majority of votes (whether it was a provincial or nation-wide ballot) overwhelmingly sway for secession, the result would not immediately materialise into Cape independence. 

The onus would then fall on either the national government or Parliament to initiate the next stage of proceedings. A successful secession would require the introduction of a constitutional amendment or a Section 74 bill in Parliament. Based on the assumption that the Section 74 bill is introduced, it would have to go through a rigorous and comprehensive public participation process in all nine provinces, as is critical for all constitutional amendments. 

The substance and nature of the bill should also be wide-ranging; it is not simply an amendment of one section of the Constitution but could have far-reaching implications for many other pieces of legislation. To ensure adequate participatory democracy in the deliberations of this bill, the public participation process would have to, at the very least, run its course for a minimum of two years, considering the precedent from past constitutional amendments. The typical Parliamentary public participation process is a pricey procedure. You would have unavoidable costs such as the setting up of town hall meetings, travel and accommodation expenses, among others. Even in the era of Covid-19, an exclusive virtual public participation process for an amendment of this significance comes attached with its own unique costs. 

Finally, once the bill has completed its public participation business and the concerned Parliament ad-hoc committee has written and validated its final report, the amendment would have to go to a vote before the two Houses of Parliament. The ANC enjoys stable majorities in both the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. The success or failure of the amendment would be entirely at their discretion. 

This is where the amendment, if it were to ever reach this point, would end up dead as Latin. 

The Western Cape is one of two economically dominant provinces in the country, boasting the highest employment numbers. This equates to income taxes that go to the national, centralised revenue fund, of which the ANC is in complete control. It would not be merely shooting oneself in the foot, as the ANC has done so many times, but endorsing a secession whereby Treasury could lose a paramount value of revenue from Western Cape income taxes and would be tantamount to amputating one’s own legs. 

Considering the above logistics and practicalities, the call for Western Cape secession should be immediately abandoned. The momentum afforded to Cape independence by secessionists should rather be focused on advocating for provinces to have more constitutional powers over Schedule 4 Part A competencies (functional areas of concurrent national and provincial legislative competence) such as policing, housing and energy production. This can be achieved through legislation, or a much more desirable and urgently needed change of national government. DM

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