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The people want a referendum: will the DA listen?

The wind of change is once again blowing in the Western Cape. Despite what certain politicians and pundits would have led you to believe, Cape independence has become a very popular idea in the province. What started as a fringe movement, barely receiving any media attention outside of the satirical columns of newspapers, has reached the point where an overwhelming majority of Western Cape voters now want to have their say on the matter - they want a referendum. The question is: will the DA heed their calls or will they end up becoming the Undemocratic Alliance?

In August, Victory Research conducted a poll on behalf of the Cape Independence Advocacy group investigating the political attitudes of Western Cape voters and how they relate to secession. The results were extraordinary.

Between 2020 and 2023, support for a referendum on Cape independence has surged from 47% to 68%, mirroring the ascending trajectory of support for independence itself, which has burgeoned from 36% to 58%. The polling suggests that significant support for a referendum comes from across the racial and political spectrum of Western Cape voters. 82% of coloured respondents, 72% of white respondents and 47% of black respondents share a common desire for a referendum. Remarkably, there is a notable degree of support among voters aligned with the ANC and EFF.

The DA’s dilemma

These figures should cause great concern for the DA - especially for key figures such as Premier Alan Winde, who tend to dismiss the movement as inconsequential and point to the limited electoral support of the minor Cape Independence Party as proof. This data, however, presents a striking revelation: the swell of support for Cape independence has permeated deeply into the DA’s voter base, with a staggering 79% of their voters desiring a referendum.

The DA have openly stated their support for testing public opinion using referendums and the matter of Cape independence is no different. As proposed by the CIAG, “a Cape Independence referendum on election day would be both pragmatic and the ultimate expression of democracy.”

Through section 127(2)(f) of the Constitution, the Premier is granted the right to call provincial referendums, although national legislation does not clearly state how the Premier can exercise this right. However, there is a legal perspective that suggests that the existing Referendums Act could be “read into”, or alternatively, the President’s authority could be invoked, in order to carry out the premier’s constitutional mandate.

By holding a referendum on election day, it gives voters two different options in avoiding the doomsday scenario of an ANC/EFF coalition. On one hand, voters will be able to vote for their preferred party that could form a coalition to keep the ANC out at the national level, while also giving them the opportunity to vote for Cape independence.

Nonetheless, with the signing of the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa, the thought of national power seems to be at the forefront of the DA’s minds, despite the low probability of success, and other options seem to be taking a backseat. Are they prepared to sacrifice the will of the WC electorate in order to avoid complicating the 2024 election?

Emerging pro-independence alternatives

A failure to represent the interests of their voters will leave the DA vulnerable to their pro-independence competitors and cracks in their Western Cape blue wall have already begun to emerge.

In November 2022, the DA narrowly held onto a previously safe ward in North Paarl, as support for the FF Plus surged from 13% to 41%. To a lesser degree, this was replicated in a by-election in Cape Agulhas, where the DA lost significant support to the FF Plus. According to election analyst Dawie Scholtz, an explanation for some of these losses could possibly be the FF Plus’ support for Cape independence.

The DA also risks creating new competitors if they disregard the views of their supporters. Only 32% of DA voters vote for their party because they believe that the party’s policies are best, 52% of them vote DA to either keep another party out or because they view the party as the least worst option. The emergence of a pro-referendum party that appeals to DA voters could end up dooming their chances of a majority in 2024 and forcing them into a position where they will have to rely on the support of secessionist parties to form a government.

The DA should be warned by the fates of parties that tried to delay democracy during the Brexit crisis. While you may succeed in delaying the inevitable in the short term, eventually the will of the people will catch up with you.

The DA of course have a duty to stand up for and represent their voters in the rest of South Africa but in doing so, they should not betray the interest of voters in the Western Cape, who have loyally given them a majority of their votes at every election for the last 14 years. The Western Cape needs to be protected from whatever outcome the voters in South Africa opt for and the only solution that gives them that choice is a referendum on Cape independence.

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