How are liberals to respond to calls for Cape independence?

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Daily Friend on 21 March 2024

As with many things, Cape independence divides liberal opinion. As someone who is sympathetic to, but not yet a supporter of, the secession of the Western Cape from South Africa, how liberals ought to respond to secessionism has been a question of interest to me. 

There have been many convoluted conceptualisations of liberalism over the years that prove incredibly unhelpful. My approach has been to err on the side of simplicity: liberals want to maximise liberty.  

And this is the fundamental question that needs to be posed when considering whether liberals should get behind the idea of Cape independence: will a seceded Cape be conducive, or destructive, to liberty?

What liberals care about 

For liberals, the political system, including law and public policy, must serve the ultimate end of securing liberty. This has not shielded liberals from naïvety or recklessness. 

The Union of South Africa, for example, was a product of the joining of forces between liberals and conservatives. For liberals, the Union was largely a matter of having a larger common market and saving the public spending that had hitherto been spent on four separate colonial governments. For conservatives, it was a matter of demographics. 

Both the English liberals and the Afrikaans conservatives dropped the ball by seeking out a unitary amalgamation, as opposed to a decentralised federation. Only the English conservatives of Natal wanted a federation. 

Liberty is not only the birthright of those well enough placed to demand and fight for it. All people are born with an unequivocal entitlement to be free. This cosmopolitan spirit is unshakable from liberalism. 

It is thus that any good liberal must ask whether a particular cause will serve liberty itself, in general, and not just the liberty of some.  

A seceded Cape could be beneficial to all South Africans’ liberty, like the existence of an independent and sovereign state of Israel is necessarily beneficial to Jews all over the world. Or, it could be harmful to the liberty of South Africans who previously would have been able to travel to the Cape freely, but now can no longer do so.  

These are the considerations of relevance to liberals. 

Good Cape independence, bad Cape independence 

What this means is that Cape independence would need to proceed along specific lines for liberals to trumpet its cause.  

Liberalism does not – and can never – reject secessionism in principle. Nor, however, can it embrace secessionism in principle. What the liberal will always ask first and foremost is, what are the implications for the freedom of the individual, constitutionally limited government, and open commerce? If the answer is positive, secession should properly be endorsed. If the answer is negative, it should properly be opposed. 

Some Cape independence groups, that have in recent years mercifully become part of the fringe of the movement, have emphasised that the Cape should be some kind of ethnic homeland for Afrikaans-speaking white and brown people, with blacks only qualifying on other, strict criteria. 

To liberals, this would be a non-starter.  

Luckily, the mainstream of the Cape independence movement, around groups like the Referendum Party and the Cape Independence Advocacy Group, have been more mature and open-minded. They have emphasised the Cape’s cosmopolitan composition, noting that an independent Cape should finally deliver on the imperative of non-racialism that the South African Constitution promised. 

Border and immigration policy 

One of the few key reasons why I am personally ambivalent about Cape independence, is the question of border and immigration policy.  

Some time ago, the Cape independence movement laid into Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis’s open posture toward people moving to the Western Cape from other parts of South Africa.  

Despite the growth in the Western Cape’s population over the last decade, the African National Congress (ANC)’s support has continued to decline, clearly indicating that the new inhabitants are not being ‘deployed’ to the province to undermine the strength of the opposition. Why, then, the Cape independence movement chooses this particular hill to fight on is anyone’s guess. 

It would seem to me that an independent Cape would need a relatively open immigration policy, if not for everyone then certainly for South Africans. Whether the Cape declares independence or not, it will always be foundationally, historically, culturally, economically, and socially linked with the remainder of South Africa. 

Even when the Cape was a British colony, it was routinely grouped socially, economically, politically, and culturally with the other republics and colonies that comprised the region. When there was talk of ‘South Africa’ in the 1870s, long before Union, this included the Cape alongside the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal, and other British possessions in the area.  

There must necessarily be a special relationship between an independent Cape and South Africa.  

This should not be regarded as a burden. Acknowledging and positively embracing this relationship would strengthen the Cape independence movement’s case, as it would signal to ambivalent South Africans – and to the international community – that the Cape intends to be a free and open society that has no ill will toward its neighbour.  

The aforementioned Referendum Party and the Cape Independence Advocacy Group have presented the best of the Cape independence movement, emphasising the desire of the people of the Cape to live in a non-racial society undergirded by liberal values such as free enterprise and limited government. If this is the reality of what an independent Cape would be, liberals should be excited about it, because it would be significantly better than what South Africa is today. 

Blind faith in the ballot box 

Former Democratic Alliance parliamentarian Ryan Coetzee recently posted on his Twitter that, ‘This Cape Independence business is such complete narcissism.’  

After some conversation, I asked him whether he agrees ‘that when SA central politics gets “bad enough” (however defined), secessionism does become a valid option?’ 

I do not believe we have reached the ‘last resort’ yet. Other options, such as federalism and provincial and local governments simply getting the job done without waiting for Pretoria’s blessing, remain on the table.  

But Coetzee responded with this: ‘It’s not a possibility Martin, unless someone plans to raise an army – and no-one sane wants that. Much better to focus on removing the ANC via the ballot box, even if not possible this time.’ 

In my view, the blind faith that some liberals place in the power of mere democracy and the ballot box might well prove to be their undoing.  

The ballot box is, ultimately, an external mechanism, where you and your community (however defined) are reliant on others making a sensible decision that does not harm you. Putting all one’s faith in democracy amounts to outsourcing the responsibility for one’s own affairs and defence to other people without any accountability. 

Secession is an internal mechanism, where you and your community take ownership of your circumstances and make the future you desire. It is a manner of taking, not outsourcing, responsibility. There are other internal mechanisms as well, such as stateproofing

To argue that we – or the people of the Cape, who have successively rejected the kind of political thinking of the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), among others – must externalise our future so fully that everything hinges on good sense winning at the ballot box, is dangerous and reckless. 

‘Last resort’ 

To be sure, the ballot box is one of several important and relevant tools to bring about positive change. But failing at the ballot box cannot and should never mean that the end of the road has been reached. The internal defence mechanism must always be available and, at least, a ‘last resort.’ 

If there is a more-than-unlikely chance that South Africa might soon have a central government that includes the EFF or any similar political force, any sensible liberal still rubbishing the Cape independence movement would prove themselves to be naïve. These political forces are consistent and clear when characterising themselves: they are violent, anti-constitutionalist, potentially genocidal, and they openly and brazenly associate with criminals. To shrug at the realistic prospect of such people being placed in positions of coercive power over one’s affairs – claiming ‘all is fair in love and democracy’ – is simply baffling. 

Under these circumstances, the ‘last resort’ option or options must avail themselves. It cannot be that after history has painstakingly taught us lesson after lesson about violent demagogues, that South Africans just shrug and allow themselves to be the demagogues’ latest victims. At some juncture, the answer must be ‘no.’ 

‘Should it be done?’ must precede ‘can it be done?’ 

Coetzee and others are preoccupied with the notion of whether Cape independence ‘can be done,’ rather than whether it ‘should be done.’ 

The existence of microstates like Liechtenstein or Monaco, or small countries like Singapore or Estonia – had they not existed – would also been branded as an impossible fantasy. 

There is no economic reason why the Cape could not be independent. There are independent, landlocked countries with fewer people and fewer resources than the Western Cape.  

There is no political reason why the Cape could not be independent. There are some unrecognised states out there today that thrive (relative to the alternatives available to them) despite the politics being stacked against them.  

There is no legal reason why the Cape could not be independent. Secession is not a matter of domestic law, and it is widely recognised as a legitimate act by international law.  

Finally, there is also no military reason why the Cape could not be independent. The South African police and military services could not quell a relatively low-intensity riot in July 2021, so there is no reason to suppose it would be able, or even have the will, to try to stop a secession that enjoys widespread support. 

The only real obstacle that stands in the way of Cape independence, is public support in the Western Cape. This can easily be determined by a referendum. In my view, if a referendum were held today in that province, it would fail, and the Western Cape would remain part of South Africa. 

Whether Cape independence is practical is a relevant question, but it cannot precede the more fundamental question of whether Cape independence is desirable.  

If there is agreement on its desirability, the practicalities can be sorted out. But getting into the weeds of practicalities before the desirability question has been answered muddies the debate and allows those who think it is not desirable to mask their true views behind the thin veil of practical concerns. 

Presently, liberals may find themselves on all sides of this issue: in favour, neutral, and opposed. But as, and if, things develop toward a viable secession plan and agenda (which is currently absent), liberals will need to reconsider.  

If it becomes clear that an independent Cape will be worse than South Africa in its recognition and respect for individual liberty and economic freedom, all good liberals must oppose it. If, however, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Cape will be a free and open society that could be a home for all those who yearn for liberty, all good liberals must vociferously champion Cape independence. 

What turns out to be the case remains to be seen. 


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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