Editorial: Parties, open your books

Political parties will tell us nothing about who gives them money. There could be – and we have reason to believe there are – arms dealers, mining companies, tender recipients and foreign interest groups funding them. This is neither confirmed nor denied; instead we are condescendingly told money does not buy influence, so we shouldn’t worry.

Last week, another stab was made at changing this untenable status quo. Nongovernmental organisation My Vote Counts argued before the Constitutional Court that Parliament is obliged to pass legislation to bring transparency to party-political funding. Parliament’s response? That it has already done exactly that, back in 2002, by passing the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia).

Even after decades of smarmy evasions, that is breathtaking sophistry. Paia happens to be a piece of legislation we at the Mail & Guardian are intimately familiar with. We watched its passing with joy. We have exploited its reach to uncover or prove all manner of dodgy dealings, and have successfully fought attempts to subvert it in more instances than our legal budget can really bear. And take it from us: Paia does not do the job.

In the 13 years of Paia’s existence, not one iota of party funding information has been extracted by using it. This does not mean, as Parliament argued in its representations, that Paia’s constitutionality should be challenged. It is a piece of legislation perfectly fit for its purpose, but its purpose never was to force political parties to keep and regularly disclose the kind of records crucial to democracy. Taking Parliament’s legal argument to its logical, if ludicrous, extreme would mean there is no need to legislate the publication of an annual state budget or to declare the winners of government tenders.

We have grown sadly inured to such farce. Every party in South Africa loudly proclaims its commitment to democracy – while actively undermining it. Not one has declared its sources of funding. Not one has declared the affiliation of its funders, even in redacted fashion, by publishing as percentages the amounts from abroad or from corporations rather than private individuals. Thus they have all shown that their empty excuses should be dismissed with all the contempt we can muster.

Instead, we have swallowed their preposterous deceit – to our collective discredit. As long as all the parties are united in this, and as long as we give those parties the mandate to defraud us by voting for them, we are complicit.

The Constitutional Court has before it complex legal arguments and it is likely to deliver a legally complex judgment. For once, though, what that court decides is irrelevant. We cannot delegate this responsibility to the judiciary. Political party funding reform can only be initiated by Parliament, and Parliament will only do so when the parties that fill its benches are forced to act. And only we, the people, can goad those parties into action.

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