Oilgate: Slippery slope

The separation of party and state is one of the basic principles underlying our constitutional order. The need to prevent the abuse of state power underpins the constitutional establishment of independent institutions such as the Office of the Auditor General and the myriad regulations that impose a duty on the state and its agents to act in the public interest, rather than to promote a narrow party benefit.

Party funding is a crucial test of that separation: if state power is abused to direct resources to support the ruling party, the basis of fair political contestation is undermined and, with it, the hard-won legitimacy of our democracy.

So it was with mounting concern that the Mail & Guardian noted and reported on a string of transactions seemingly designed to benefit those close to the African National Congress—and from which, in turn, the party stood to gain.

The Nigerian state oil allocation to the mysterious "South African Oil Company"—located in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands—raised suspicions, although there was no direct evidence of benefit to the ANC. The controversial award of a state tender to import Iraqi oil to Imvume Management, a company closely aligned to the ANC, was also troubling.

However, when rumours began surfacing last year that the ANC had been the direct beneficiary of money paid to Imvume by state-owned oil company PetroSA—to the detriment of PetroSA's own balance sheet—the M&G decided to probe this transaction as thoroughly as possible.

Today we publish the results of that investigation, which show that -PetroSA paid a R15-million "advance" to Imvume, of which R11-million was within days transferred to ANC coffers—at a time when the party was desperate for cash to support its 2004 election campaign.

Imvume was unable to repay the money and PetroSA was forced to make up the shortfall, leaving the parastatal—and indirectly the taxpayer—R18-million out of pocket.

The decision to pursue this investigation was based on a duty to explore serious allegations of a subversion of good governance and fair political process. We believe what has been exposed justifies deep concern about the whole question of party funding.

This view is informed also by the stubborn refusal of the ruling party to disclose details of its income sources and its refusal, thus far, to introduce legislation that would open party funding to public scrutiny.

We hope the ANC will not fudge the commitment it has recently given to bring such a law to Parliament.

Meanwhile, the Imvume-PetroSA transaction cries out for further independent public investigation—as do the other oil deals we have mentioned.

In addition, the deal reveals a deep-seated ANC belief that it is the only legitimate expression of the popular will, and that bending the rules in its favour is almost regarded as an act of patriotism.

We dare not succumb to this conflation of party and state, no matter how large the ANC majority. It is a slippery slope.

Now for the how

Minister of Education Naledi Pandor sounded almost all the right notes in her budget vote speeches this week to Parliament and the National Council of Provinces. But what was surprising was not so much a matter of what she said—it was what she didn't say.

As expected, she ranged broadly over all areas of education, and where she articulated firm targets there is much to welcome.

Providing places for all children in grade R (the reception year of schooling) by 2010 is one example. So too are introducing a number of no-fee schools next year; conceding that higher education is probably under-funded and determining to re-examine this with the Treasury; and admitting that the government has not met its targets for improving literacy among adults (this admission is a first for an education minister).

So far, so familiar—including two proposals for which Pandor surprisingly hit flak: her determination that indigenous languages be developed into mediums of learning and teaching, and her intention that provincial education departments oversee which teachers school governing bodies appoint. On the latter proposal, aimed at encouraging diversity of teacher appointments, it is notable that neither the South African Democratic Teachers Union nor the National Association of School Governing Bodies expressed any misgivings—and nor do we, in principle.

Equally, the language proposal is simply necessary in a multilingual country such as ours: forcing youngsters from an early age to learn in languages that might be their second or third or fourth is a sure way of limiting their potential and achievements from the outset.

But to say, as Pandor did, that her proposal "opens up the possibility of developing the other official languages into languages of learning and teaching" invites the central question we need to ask about her whole contribution to the budget vote debate: when and how will all this happen?

What is disturbing is that her speeches arguably reflect an overall absence of detailed planning. That dovetails with concerns many educationists are expressing about the national department itself, whose inertia and lack of urgency in too many areas (such as teacher training and development) are deeply worrying. Without concrete plans of action, worthy policies remain doomed in our second decade of democracy to languish in the swamps of non-implementation.

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