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Secret funding enslaves a free society

Ever since the now-defunct Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) took the ANC and other political parties to court, unsuccessfully, in 2005, South Africa has been promised a debate on the regulation of private party funding.

In the Idasa case, the ANC stated in its court papers that it was "committed to the initiation and passage of such legislation in Parliament", which is why Idasa did not appeal the high court ruling.

Then, at Polokwane in 2007, the ANC resolved to "champion the introduction of a comprehensive ­system of public funding of representative political parties … as part of strengthening the tenets of our new democracy. This should include putting in place an effective regulatory architecture for private funding of political parties … The incoming NEC [national executive committee] must urgently develop guidelines and policy on public and private funding, including how to regulate investment vehicles."

Despite this promise, when South Africa holds its fifth democratic general elections in less than nine months we will have no idea how much money each party has received from private individuals, large corporations and foreign governments, or how much money each party has spent on the elections.

It seems as though there is no issue that creates solidarity across party lines like secret funding.

After almost eight years of near silence, the MyVoteCounts campaign tried to reignite this issue last year. Building on the work of other activists and organisations concerned with political and social justice, MyVoteCounts wrote to Parliament and all represented political parties calling for appropriate legislation to ensure transparency and accountability in the public and private funding of political parties.

A similar request was detailed in a widely supported memorandum sent to the speaker of Parliament and personally accepted by the National Council of Provinces chairperson, Mninwa Mahlangu, in August last year at the People's Power, People's Parliament conference.

MyVoteCounts also reached out to the Independent Electoral Com­mission (IEC), a chapter nine, independent institution. The commission is critical to the operation of South Africa's electoral system and is specifically mandated to undertake and promote research into electoral matters, including campaign finance, and report to the National Assembly.

We believe such legislation is a constitutional imperative, as required by the right of access to inform­ation in section 32, the right to just administrative action in section 33, as well as the principles of public administration in section 195 of the Constitution, read against the backdrop of the rule of law and other constitutional values. This is different from the legal strategy employed by Idasa, and it builds on the corruption jurisprudence that the Constitutional Court has developed since then.

But what option do citizens have when Parliament fails to do what it has promised?

There are two important points. First, this and other pickets and debates facilitated by MyVoteCounts was an attempt to make democracy work. Although the Constitution goes a long way to safeguarding the rights of individuals and upholding the rule of law, we are yet to see democratic institutions functioning as they should. For example, we are still figuring out how chapter nine institutions, which are meant to support democracy; constituency representatives; portfolio committees and the National Council of Provinces can best harness political competition to establish a system of government that can organise, check, balance and diffuse power effectively.

What do you do when you have been informed that party funding has been "on the agenda of the chief whip's forum" since December last year? Or when the IEC refuses to take a position on campaign finance based on a narrow interpretation of its constitutional duty?

After a full year of engaging with Parliament and the IEC we sent a letter of demand on June 4 this year putting the speaker of the National Assembly, the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, the ministers of justice and constitutional development and of home affairs on terms.

The letter requests that Parlia­ment, in conjunction with and, to the extent appropriate, the national executive, publish a comprehensive timetable for the introduction of legislation to regulate ­private donations to political parties. MyVoteCounts wants comprehensive reform of the funding of political parties to make them open and transparent, responsive and neutrally funded to try to limit influence by those with special interests.

According to the letter, if no such response was given by July 24 we would be forced to take court action against Parliament.

We received a response from the speaker informing us that Parlia­ment has discharged its constitutional duty to regulate private funding with the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act. Furthermore, he said, the issue was a party-political matter.

This is no answer. The speaker and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces are the elected representatives and spokespersons of each house of Parliament. In matters concerning the constitutional and other obligations of Parliament, correspondence is addressed to the speaker and the chairperson in their official capacities and not to each of the 490 MPs.

The second point is that we must treat the issue of money in politics as a social-justice issue rather than just one of corruption. As a fellow political-reform advocate, Dan Weeks, has argued, when political parties come to rely on the financial support of a few – and not just on the votes of a majority – to win and maintain power, public accountability and internal party democracy are undermined. This affects service delivery and the struggle for a more equal society.

Public funding of political parties, as stipulated in article 236 of the Constitution and codified in the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act, currently accounts for only a small fraction of the total funds parties raise. The rest – amounting to hundreds of millions of rands a year, all of it undisclosed – comes from private sources.

Research by the Open Society Foundation has shown that private donations to parties for election spending increased from about R100-million in 1994 to R550-million in 2009 and will increase again next year. South Africa's major political party funding scandals include the arms deal in 1999 (worth between R30- and 70-billion), Oilgate in 2004 (worth about R11-million) and the Chancellor House deal with Eskom and Hitachi Power Africa (valued at R38-billion). The Gupta family funding (said to run into millions) is only the latest saga.

Because parties rely so heavily on these donations, there is always the possibility that some, although not all, wealthy individuals and corporations will insist that the political debt be repaid by tenders, positions or favourable economic policies. It is difficult to monitor this because it is shrouded in absolute secrecy.

Should we cap campaign expenditure? What should maximum donations be? What principles can we agree on and what legal structures do we want? What about a democracy fund?

Donors – a tiny minority of influential people and companies – ­cannot become stakeholders in the affairs and policies of a party if we believe in a strong, independent and free society. Donors give money to buy influence. They don't fund parties to come up with brilliant ideas to solve global inequality. Secret party funding is a major source of corruption. Making this transparent and regulated may not stop all corruption but it will make it more difficult to conduct; it will empower citizens to hold politicians to account.

Henry Thoreau said: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." As we approach the elections, this is arguably the most important electoral question: Where does the money come from? How this question is answered will depend on whether we can make democracy work.

Gregory Solik is the chairperson of MyVoteCounts. Follow him on Twitter

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