This article was first published by BizNews on 15 March 2023
The right to secede is essential to peaceful world order and achieving true freedom
Governments are predicated on maintaining control over a defined geographical area (defined by borders), but this control is not always supported by the people who live in parts of those areas. It is also often the case that people in neighbouring countries would be dissatisfied in having to be separated by a border due to historical ties between those people. Government control of specific areas is therefore sometimes contested, and this is a major cause of war; the general and individual right to secede would therefore remove a major causal factor for all wars.
Take the case of the current war in Ukraine. The war actually started in 2014 when some Ukrainian citizens who either spoke the Russian language or were sympathetic to Russia felt that the fall of Victor Yanukovych’s government represented a threat to them. This was no doubt a sentiment that was encouraged by Russia. Nevertheless, the government that took power after this did restrict the use of the Russian language by for example changing information boards written in Russian into Ukrainian, and making Ukrainian the only language to be used in public institutions.
This does not by any means justify the war, but merely to say that these changes did cause discontent among Russian-speaking Ukrainians especially in areas with heavy concentrations of these people. It undoubtedly gave the Russian government an opportunity to take advantage of this discontent. This would eventually lead to the secession and invasion of Crimea which are both illegal under international law, and the unrest in the Donbas region of Ukraine.
This was similar to the causes of war in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. Again, language rights were part of the public justifications for the war. Going back a few decades, the invasion of the Sudetenland on the 15th October 1938 was the first proper military action launched by Hitler’s Germany in World War II and it too was justified on the basis of language and unifying the German people.
Now these justifications are not always necessarily true - in some cases power-hungry tyrants use a similar culture and language as a justification for seizing power. Yet introducing the individual right to secede would remove this justification, as those tyrants would need to find another reason to justify their invasions. A justification for war is important for the ability to win a war because the people who do the fighting should believe in the cause for which they are being asked to give their lives. Sun-Tzu recognises the importance of this ‘moral’ authority as being essential to winning a war.
The right to secede is not just important for promoting peace but also for the freedom of the individual. What is the implication of being bound to live under the laws (including taxes) of a government you do not want? Are we truly free if the assumption is that because the property I own just happens to be within the borders of a government I do not want to be a part of, then I must abide by the laws of that government no matter how unjust these laws are?
This implies that we are somehow owned by these governments, that they have a right to tax us even if they use those taxes to do things that contradict our values or to even actively undermine our interests. After all, black South Africans under apartheid were liable to pay taxes to a government that saw them as less than human - is this not akin to slavery to some extent?
Article I of the UN charter recognises the principle of self-determination, although the same charter also recognises the territorial integrity of states. Section 235 of the South African constitution recognises the group rather than individual’s right to self-determination and is consequently not a part of the Bill of Rights. So, there is some recognition of the importance of this but current international law as well as the South African constitution do not go nearly far enough towards full self-determination, which would be a property owner’s right to secession along with their property to either join an existing state or found their own state.
There are many communities in South Africa that would benefit from this right. Obviously, the loudest voices to champion secession before have come from the Afrikaner community as well as the Zulu community, both linguistic and cultural communities fitting the conditions for self-determination listed in the Constitution. Yet in more recent times there have been growing calls for a ‘Capexit’, which would be the secession of the Western Cape from South Africa.Unlike the linguistic communities, there isn’t a clear shared culture or language among Capexit supporters, and these are mostly people who do not want to be governed by the government that runs the rest of South Africa, and for good reason given the failures of this government.
There are also less vocal communities such as other smaller ethnic groups, geographical communities, religious communities and people who just want to be free from the laws imposed on them by the government. If an individual or group of individuals disagrees with the laws of the government, they cannot change these laws without at first recruiting at least 50% of other adult South Africans to vote for the change.
Trapping people in this way will continue to be an enduring source of discontent not only in this country but around the world. Just think about the religious communities in South Africa who were forced to accept legal abortion as well as other practices they strongly disagree with, like same-sex marriage. Under a legal and individual right to secession regime, these communities could simply have left South Africa along with other like-minded adults to live under their own laws.
As a matter of practicality secession to another state should require that the seceding state share a land border with the state it wishes to join except in the case of seceding islands. Secession has to be agreed upon by all property owners in the seceding state, and in case the seceding state has any public property from the country it is leaving within its borders it should have to pay a fair price for this property.
A common argument against this is that it would be chaotic, with many states being formed, some with sizes of a few square metres. Think of the ridiculous situation where a suburban residential property owner decides to secede with their plot. This is why as a matter of practicality some limits would have been set, perhaps set a threshold for the minimum area of land that can secede, doubtless there would be other issues to consider.
However, this should not dissuade us from accepting the principle. How many wars could have been avoided and can we still avoid if we give people the right to secede with their property? How many current African wars could be resolved if we could give people a means to address the chief cause of these conflicts, which is the arbitrary nature of colonial-era borders that Africans today have to live with?
And this is not a new idea either in this country. In the 1986 book South Africa: The Solution, authors Leon Louw and Frances Kendall essentially argue for the same right. South Africa is now entering an era of uncertainty with various problems plaguing this country. To avoid conflict and achieve true freedom for our people we must allow them the right to secede from this country if they want. And once we win this right for South Africans we can then argue this for all of Africa and eventually the world.