What did they spend? Party Funding and Campaigns in SA …

By: Judith February

With the elections over and the African National Congress celebrating its victory, it is clear that, along with the people, the money has also spoken.

Estimates put the ANC’s election spending at between R200million and R400m. No one can be sure of the actual amount, given the lack of transparency in the funding of political parties.

All political parties seem to agree that transparency is a good thing but appear to lose their appetite when it comes to disclosing their own sources of funding. It has been a case of “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”.

For as much as the ANC has been coy about the sources of its donations, so has the opposition Democratic Alliance – which flooded the Western Cape with posters and, towards the end of its campaign, laid on a helicopter for Helen Zille – been reluctant to disclose its funding sources.

So, the question remains, who will lead the way in closing this gap in South Africa’s transparency regime? Logically, it would have to be the ruling party, with its overwhelming majority in Parliament.

The ANC’s commitment to transparency in party funding was articulated in its Polokwane resolutions. It therefore has a mandate from its members to legislate on this issue. Yet, there has been little movement on the matter since Polokwane.

According ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, there seems to be a move toward demanding greater public funding. The question, of course, is what the public will think of this.

It is clear that political parties need money to operate. In the recent election, we have seen what happens when parties lack resources. The Independent Democrats, the United Democratic Movement and, to a lesser extent, the Congress of the People have been hamstrung by a lack of funding.

But knowing where the money comes from is crucial if political parties are serious about transparency in tender processes and conflicts of interest. Without transparency in relation to political donations, there can be no way of knowing whether tenders are being allocated because of what companies or individuals have donated to the ANC, for instance.

There is no doubt that strong democracies require healthy political parties. In turn, political parties require resources to sustain and operate a basic party structure, to contest elections and to contribute to policy debate. And it is probably unrealistic to outlaw private donations.

Moreover, it is clear that the R70m- odd a year of public money that the political parties currently receive is not enough to finance the myriad activities political parties need to undertake. But what is also clear is that reform and regulation now represent mainstream modern democratic thinking, though the detail of the regulation varies and must be contextually orientated. In Britain, public disclosure of contributions is required only of corporations and unions. Parties are required to submit quarterly reports, which detail donor information, to the electoral commission.

German law entitles parties or several of its bodies to receive donations, but donations that exceed R112 000 a year must be publicly disclosed.

Whatever the shortcomings of regulating private funding to political parties, the advantages of transparency are clear.

Increasing public funding might only be part of the solution, because public money will never be enough and will not do away with political parties’ need to raise private money. So, in a sense, requesting greater amounts of public money only serves to create a diversion, because the nub of the problem is the millions of rands raised in secret and the accountability deficit that has been created in our political processes.

Perhaps the new Parliament can start its term with a commitment to filling the lacuna in South Africa’s anti corruption apparatus and initiate legislation to ensure that political parties are transparent about their sources of funding?

The public has the right to know who is funding our political parties because secrecy only breeds mistrust and an environment ripe for corruption.

This article first appeared in Business Day, Friday, 08th May 2009.

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