Editorial: Democracy's next challenge

Supposedly independent voices say they did nothing wrong and nothing unethical - and, in fact, were doing business as usual. If that is what they genuinely believe, a debate on ethical lobbying is more urgent than we imagined. (Flickr)

Supposedly independent voices say they did nothing wrong and nothing unethical - and, in fact, were doing business as usual. If that is what they genuinely believe, a debate on ethical lobbying is more urgent than we imagined. (Flickr)

All the political parties have much to say about corruption (in summary, they do not approve of it) and make fine speeches about the need for transparency (we need more), while resolutely clinging to their privilege to deny those who voted for them any information about where the parties’ money comes from.

We do not know which corporations fund the parties that govern our cities or who pays the bills of the parties that make our laws. They will not tell us how much of their funding comes from outside South Africa, how much comes from foreign governments, whether arms dealers or nuclear providers are in the mix, or whether banks or tobacco companies or tenderpreneurs are important contributors.

They give all manner of reasons. The opposition fears funders will flee if they are seen to be anti-ANC.
The ANC fears … well, we’re not clear what the ANC fears. In legal argument, these parties cite a different reason: nobody has ever made them disclose the sources of their money, so they don’t have to.

That, at least, could change. In its first case of 2015, the Constitutional Court will consider an application by the My Vote Counts campaign for an order declaring that Parliament has failed in its duty to pass laws that make party funding transparent.

If the court is as activist as its critics claim, or as deeply infused with the spirit of the Constitution as its praise singers believe, it will grant that order. It may take years and much more legal action to squeeze compliance out of Parliament, but there is hope.

We may have to develop the legislation, then the regulations and then the jurisprudence, but it can be done. If the American example of recent problems with “dark money” is anything to go by, we will also have to find all the loopholes and laboriously close them, but that too can be done.

At which point we may find that a problem far more difficult to root out has already taken hold: dark lobbying. This week the Mail & Guardian reports on a second instance of highly dubious lobbying in the yet-to-be-finalised draft national policy on intellectual property.

Early this year pharmaceutical companies were exposed for considering (and they barely even did that, they claimed) a covert campaign against that policy, which could weaken the companies’ patent protection. The plan involved seemingly independent voices speaking up and changing the debate – voices covertly directed by a Washington choirmaster. The plan didn’t get off the ground. While the pharmaceutical companies were in the spotlight, it now transpires that a multinational company dealing in genetically modified seed was doing the same thing in its own campaign against the policy.

The supposedly independent voices that joined the debate say they did nothing wrong and nothing unethical – and, in fact, were doing business as usual. If that is what they genuinely believe, a debate on ethical lobbying is more urgent than we imagined. If organisations nominally run by academics and multistakeholder associations see nothing wrong in parroting self-serving corporate views and thereby hoping to influence government policy, we are already in deep trouble.

How do we ensure that there is honest lobbying and that public debate is not corrupted by corporate interests?

In South Africa, we haven’t worked it out yet. But once the bigger fish of party-political funding is fried, we’ll be further on the way to finding out.

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