The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa's Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Manenberg. Image credit Christopher Morgan via YWAM Orlando on Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The issue of Cape independence in South Africa’s Western Cape province has been around for a few years now. Although it was initially seen as a fringe movement, even in the Western Cape, it has now become mainstream, to the extent that the Cape Independence Party contested South Africa’s Local Government Elections (LGE) in 2021. By all accounts, Cape independence is not likely to happen anytime soon. However, what the movement represents and the false ideas that it is steeped in could have future political ramifications.

A look at the Cape Independence website offers a breakdown of the levels of support that the movement now claims to enjoy—specifically that around 58% of voters in the Western Cape support the idea of a referendum in favor of independence. Furthermore, according to the group CapeXit, 830,398 people have signed a petition calling for a more autonomous Western Cape. Despite all these numbers, parties representing Cape independence fared very poorly in the 2021 local government elections. Nowithstanding, the idea of Cape Independence has only gained traction. In 2022, AfriForum, the Afrikaans “civil rights” organization, threw its weight behind the idea, formally stating that provinces and premiers should become more autonomous and have more power. This has also gained media and social media traction with more established political players starting to lean into this idea. As political commentator Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh pointed out in his opinion piece, “DA flirts dangerously with Western Cape Separatists,” the idea of Cape independence that was once fringe has become legitimized and mainstreamed. As this movement has gained more traction, conservative media is popularizing it on many social media platforms. YouTube channels, such as ‘MorningShot’ have driven home the message around Cape independence, capitalizing on the ANC’s failures in government and falling hegemony as a way of driving this movement.

The issue is clearly not dormant. It is also not only a symptom of white privilege but also of the myth believed by a broad spectrum of voters that the Western Cape is better run because of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s official opposition, which controls the province.

False messaging

The Western Cape is often touted as the best-run province in the country by many in the media. Not only does the DA consistently claim this in their political messaging, but it is a view shared by many, including on the nominal left. Recently, Zackie Achmat—a founder, in the late 1990s, of the Treatment Action Campaign and later involved in campaigns that exposed the shoddy state of DA governance in generals—praised the DA’s running of Cape Town in a Facebook post. This follows a trend of voters usually opposed to DA governance becoming charmed by certain “decent” leaders within the party, such as Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis and uMngeni municipality mayor, Chris Pappas. These mayors have been praised by many who do not usually associate with the DA.

This is the idea that the movement for Western Cape independence is partially rooted in; the idea that Cape Town is better managed than other cities and that all its residents enjoy better living, particularly in contrast to cities governed by the African National Congress (ANC). However, a closer look below the surface shows this to be not entirely true.

Take this election campaign advertisement put out by the DA last year as a way to illustrate this point. In the advert, DA leader John Steenhuisen claims the voter can choose between collapsing infrastructure or well-maintained roads and infrastructure. He then moves on to say that the voter can pick between crime or the safety of thousands of police. This consistent messaging by the DA is reinforced and bought into by many other right-wing parties in the province, such as the Freedom Front Plus. It is also reflected in the rates of semigration to the Western Cape, and Cape Town in particular, which are currently on the increase.

What this messaging conceals is the fact that the governance of the Western Cape is profoundly uneven. While some areas, typically white and affluent, are well looked after, others, typically black (and coloured) and poor, remain neglected and impoverished. Informal settlements such as Khayelitsha, Langa and Nyanga remain spaces of historical injustice. Lack of adequate sanitation and infrastructure, high crime, and neglect by the city contribute to unlivable conditions for many in the city’s working-class coloured and black townships. Crime rates in Cape Town are still highest in Khayelitsha, Delft, and Nyanga, with crime in these informal settlements as well as the Cape Flats (where apartheid forcibly moved the city’s coloured population) accounting for 46.6% of the murder cases in the Western Cape. The city has been criticized for its disproportionately poor response to floods and fires in informal communities versus the rest of the city. It has also come under fire for its treatment of the homeless population, with homelessness increasing dramatically in recent years. Rather than address the root socio-economic causes, the city has a record of criminalizing homelessness. Gentrification, for example, exposes the  DA’s liberal hypocrisy and is further fueling the homelessness crisis.

Many in the DA—including its federal council chairperson, Helen Zille—will say that to be poor in the Western Cape is better than to be poor in the rest of the country. However, this is simply not the case and acts to negate the DA’s failures and, in its place, replace the ANC as the principal problem driving inequality and poverty. Yet, rates of poverty in the Western Cape are some of the highest in the country with around 44% living on less than R1,227 per month. Around 21% of residents still live in informal dwellings with poor access to sanitation. Although unemployment is lower in the Western Cape than many other provinces in the country, it is still disproportionately skewed, with rates of unemployment among white people (who make up one-quarter of the province’s population) far lower than those among black and coloured people.

The question regarding what consequences this false perception of the Western Cape can have on the rise of the political right in the country remains?

For many years, the DA has been opposed to holding a referendum stating that the DA aims to govern the rest of the country rather than separate the Western Cape from the country. As it gains real political support, the idea of Cape independence has forced the hand of the DA in the Western Cape. Around 72% of those who support a referendum are DA voters.

As a way of preemptively dealing with the issue, the DA formed a devolution committee with conservative parties such as the ACDP, FF+, Cape Independence Advocacy Group and the Cape Independence Party. Not only has this given this issue more legitimacy in public discourse, but also makes clear the influence that right-wing parties hold over South African politics. The idea of Western Cape independence contributes to the right-wing populist ideology in South Africa that is gaining traction in the country.

A broad spectrum of voters

Cape independence is not simply about white privilege. The messaging of the movement permeates the political spectrum. In particular, it enjoys the significant support of many coloured voters in the  province. The Cape Independence website states that 56% of those in support of Cape Independence are coloured voters. Furthermore, the Cape Coloured Congress, a party that was formed to represent interests of the coloured community, is also in support.

Therefore, and importantly,  the shift to the right right-wing shift in the Western Cape is a multi-racial movement that supports a more exclusionary politics. What happens, though, when Cape independence fails? It will open up possibilities for further right-wing advances and consolidation not only in the Western Cape but across the country. Voters shifting further to the right could disrupt and even challenge the DA’s control over the Western Cape, pushing the party to adopt even more right-wing ideas and policies.

Cape Independence is rooted in false perceptions and the DA has played a hand that may come back to bite it.

Further Reading