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No evidence for authenticity of ‘confidential’ correspondence about US interference and support for Referendum Party in the Western Cape

IN SHORT: Social media posts claim to show a confidential letter from a US intelligence official to a member of South Africa’s main opposition party, detailing US government interference in the country’s politics and endorsing establishing a party to push for Western Cape independence. The letter has been rubbished by the US embassy in Pretoria and a politician mentioned in the letter. 

“I am writing to confirm the United States Government’s support for the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) plan to establish a ‘Referendum Party’ (RP) to build support for Cape independence, while maintaining the DA’s plausible deniability.” 

This is the start of the correspondence addressed to politician Helen Zille, in her capacity as “Chairperson of the Federal Council” of the Democratic Alliance opposition party. The page-long letter is formatted to look like an official document, and claims to be an “official endorsement of the Referendum Party” by the US government. 

We contacted Zille’s office to confirm whether or not she received this correspondence, and she responded: "That letter is 100% fake."

The original post has since been deleted, but is still circulating elsewhere on social media, gaining thousands of likes on X (formerly Twitter), with other versions also appearing on Facebook. But there is no evidence that the letter is authentic. Here’s what we found.

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Referendum Party and Western Cape secession 

The document, dated October 2023, details the US’s influence in the proposed formation of a “Referendum Party” to “build support for Cape independence, while maintaining the DA’s plausible deniability”. 

The letter claims that the US government is in “full support” of establishing the secessionist party as a response to South Africa’s “increasing alignment with Russia, China and Iranian proxies”, in an effort to oppose “growing anti-American axis in the region”. The letter also pledges to send South Africa US military aid and troops “if necessary”.

Calls for South Africa's Western Cape province to become a separate state are real, with political parties campaigning for the idea, despite questions surrounding the feasibility of the proposed “Capexit”. The DA, which governs the Western Cape and is the country’s main opposition party, has not come out in support of a secession

The Referendum Party does also exist, as a single-issue party formed in November 2023. Its aim, according to founder Phil Craig, is to “ramp up the pressure” on the DA to call for a referendum to vote on independence. 

Clues from context

The letter might seem official at first glance. It contains the US Department of State logo, what appears to be an official’s signature, and a watermark banner reading “CONFIDENTIAL” across the page. It is well-written and not littered with spelling and grammatical errors, which is a common warning sign in many false statements that claim to be official. 

But some aspects of the letter seem out of place. One approach when trying to evaluate such information is to ask: What do I see, and what should I see, if the story were true? 

In this case, you might expect this kind of document to have some indication of where it came from, or information about how it may have been “leaked” or ended up on social media. 

Despite this being a newsworthy set of claims that would have substantial geopolitical implications, it has not been reported on by any news outlets, and only circulated on a few social media accounts. The original poster, an account named No to Capexit!, appears to post content solely rallying against the idea of Western Cape independence. 

The letter also contains promises that may stir strong emotions or may not be expected in correspondence between the US government and an opposition party member, such as assurance of military aid and troops, an open admission that a political party leader is a military intelligence operator, and that the US is interfering with a country’s political process. 

Although there is an official logo in the document, this is different to past communication from the US embassy in South Africa, like this statement posted by the official US embassy X  account during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

An internet search for the alleged author, “David A Murphy”, doesn’t yield many promising results. A David E Murphy was a real person, working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the mid-1900s. But he died in 2014, and did not work as “Head of Intelligence for Southern Africa”. 

In evaluating this kind of document, it is also useful to check if the people or bodies mentioned in it might have commented. The official X account of the US embassy immediately rubbished the claims in the now-deleted letter. And Referendum Party leader Philip Craig ridiculed the post and implied it was false. 

There is no evidence that this is an authentic document, and many red flags signal the opposite.

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