Western Cape separatist delusions have endured since Jan van Riebeeck’s time
A colonial mentality is also to be found among ANC members with their ‘build a wall’ calls
Freedom Front Plus MP Corné Mulder recently told the Cape Town Press Club, “In the long run, an independent Western Cape is where our future lies.” This separatist delusion began with Jan van Riebeek imagining it might be possible to slice off the Cape peninsula from the rest of Africa. The mirage continues today with fanciful proposals to hive off the entire province, mostly punted by obscure groups that have never made any electoral impression. But now Mulder, his party’s Western Cape leader, insists “Western Cape independence impossible and unrealistic? Do not believe that for one minute. We are in Africa and in Africa anything is possible.”
It is astonishing that a party that represents mainly Afrikaners should, after the catastrophe of apartheid, continue to float white-driven experiments in a different form. With no apparent irony Mulder declared: “Morally and legally, all peoples have the right to decide how and why and by whom they want to be governed.”
Also with no apparent sense of history, he continued that without independence “the Western Cape will be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in an open democracy within an arbitrary colonial construct, where a majority will continue to dominate minorities”. This sentiment has led to post-independence Africa being plagued with wars sparked by arbitrary colonial borders. Given the current military strife in Ethiopia, Mulder’s call is irresponsible and potentially incendiary.
Factual myopia remains rife among some Afrikaner leaders. Former president FW de Klerk falsely stated in a CNN interview in 2012 that “the homelands were historically there” and then, incredibly, referred to “the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states”. That same year Pieter Mulder, then leader of the FF+ and a deputy minister in then president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, asserted that “Bantu-speaking” people had no historic claim to 40% of SA. Although a statistical improvement on the apartheid fabrication that black people had no claim to 87% of the land, it was still a rehash of colonial propaganda, the false claim that Europeans discovered “an empty land”.
Corné Mulder’s divisive call for Western Cape “independence” is merely the latest manifestation of what for centuries has been a European or settler aspiration. Van Riebeeck planted a bitter almond hedge to keep the Khoi out of the fledgling Dutch outpost and considered excavating a canal across the peninsula, effectively creating an island. Neither scheme worked. Ever since, however, separatist fantasies have endured.
In the 1870s, English historian JA Froude argued for “a line of forts from Table Bay to False Bay” to be the limit of “imperial responsibility”. The novelist Anthony Trollope wrote after his tour of SA in 1877 that strategically Britain needed only to occupy the Cape, “leaving the rest of SA to its savagery”. In 1956, writer Lawrence Green referred to the old schemes of a canal between Table Bay and False Bay, confidently stating: “Modern engineers have revived the idea and it is likely to be carried out in our own time.”
This urge resurfaces in the 21st century at every election, with clear racial overtones. The sole member of the FF+ in the Western Cape parliament, the party-hopping Peter Marais, has been voluble about his desire to secede from SA, claiming it is a “main priority” for his party. Such separatist schemes, while destined to remain pipedreams, reflect a very real mental state: of being semi-detached, emotionally and socially, from the rest of SA.
A defensive colonial mentality also appears to have influenced some present-day ANC politicians, most clearly expressed in xenophobic sentiments but also in a “build the wall” attitude. In October the department of public works proposed to the parliamentary public works portfolio committee the expenditure of R5bn to rebuild large sections of the border fence, including censors, cameras and drones, as a barrier with four neighbouring countries (Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho). The official making the October 2020 parliamentary presentation sounded an ominous alarm about the need to close us off from our neighbours. “We are not safe socially, politically and economically,” he warned. “In terms of war, we are fragile in a way that anyone can come into SA.”
Barriers across the Cape peninsula, a unilateral declaration of Western Cape independence or fencing off the entire country are not solutions. They are symptoms of our enduring paranoia.
• Rostron is a journalist and author.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.