Is an eccentric billionaire funding the EFF? We’ll never know

Is Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters being funded by controversial billionaire Nathan Kirsh?

A rather inflammatory photo did the rounds on Twitter on Sunday. It was a snap taken of a printed out Absa payment notification, from a donor “N Kirsh” to the EFF’s bank account, with the reference “donation”. The amount? Just shy of R9-million.

It would make a juicy story, of course. Kirsh, an eccentric sort with bucketloads of money, seems to like dabbling in opposition politics. Previous reports say he has funded the Democratic Alliance as well as Agang, and was perhaps behind their forced merger. He’s also been linked to the FW de Klerk Foundation so one conspiracy theory had it that clearly this proves the EFF is a giant project by De Klerk and Kirsh to undermine the ANC.

But here’s the thing: there’s no way to verify if that document is real. It’s more likely that it is part of dozens of attempts with the murky world of politics to cast suspicion on a party. The EFF itself has done so when it has claimed that the DA was funded by Israel, a claim some linked to Kirsh himself, funnily enough, who is a director of the Israeli defence ministry’s supplier of choice, Magal Security Systems. Malema did it again when he has said several times that those challenging his leadership from within the EFF are being funded by the ANC.

Private Funding battle
Throwing shade about a party’s funders is easy enough as there is literally no information available to the public. It’s a complete black hole so political movers can insinuate all sorts of things. I could create a mock payment notification showing the EFF has received money from President Jacob Zuma’s enemies in the ANC and quietly start circulating it on social media. Malema’s detractors would have a field day, saying this proves he is planning to return to the governing party after Zuma’s departure, as his nemesis Gayton McKenzie has claimed in an open letter earlier this year.

The problem is its all just wild rumour and conjecture and it leaves us, the voters, with even less facts to make informed decisions. Instead we’re left with more of the same old in South African politics: whipped up emotions and hysteria informing our generally poor political choices.

This latest incident is just one more reason that political parties in South Africa should be legally compelled to reveal their funding sources.

An organisation called My Vote Counts is taking legal action to this end, something the sadly demised Institute for Democracy in Africa tried and failed to do in 2005. We’ll have to wait for the Constitutional Court, which reserved judgement on the matter in February, to see if My Vote Counts will be more successful.

Lagging behind
There are loads of reasons we should know who is funding our political parties. The most obvious example is influence: if a funder could force the ill-conceived DA-Agang merger, how much else are they swaying in political parties that should theoretically be purely accountable to us as voters? Powerful lobbies and funders run the show in American politics and policy-making. Shouldn’t South Africa, with its developmental model and Constitutional bias towards the poor, set a better example and show the world that we will not tolerate secrecy in this area?

Evidently not.

Instead of leading the way, South Africa is one of a handful of countries with no legislation regulating the funding of political parties

Out of 116 countries studied by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which has conducted comprehensive research on the subject, 100 have banned state resources from being given to parties. South Africa isn’t one of them, and we’re among the worst on the continent as far as the lack of legislation is concerned. That’s right, the rest of Africa is outpacing us in the area of party funding.

Unchecked donations
Nor does South Africa ban donations from corporations with government contracts, or state resources being given to a particular party.

Think for a minute how truly messed up that is. My business can make a massive donation to the ANC at the same time I’m bidding for a massive contract.

So how do we introduce better policy, short of activists dragging the matter to court every few years? That’s the catch-22. The Independent Electoral Commission’s chief electoral officer, Mosotho Moepya, previously told me that the a political party could suggest a change. Right.

No organisation with a healthy sense of self-interest would do this.

It is not in the interest of political parties to pass such changes into law so they won’t. In more idealist days, before the EFF got into power, Malema noted that party funding should be transparent. But once he landed a cushy Parliament job that promise, like so many others, were forgotten.

Not that it would be easy for the EFF to voluntarily reveal their funders in a vacuum. It would only work if all parties did so.

Political contradictions
An Agang insider told me before the elections that the party wanted to be transparent about its donors, but a “culture of fear” stopped it from doing so.

“A wealthy KwaZulu-Natal businessman gave us a substantial donation and begged us not to let the ANC find out, as it would affect his business in the province,” he said.

Helen Zille has made the same point on several occasions but seems oddly comfortable with the secrecy and in no hurry to change the situation. Sources in the DA say very few at the top of the party are privy to who the funders are. We saw a glimpse into this highly secretive world when Zille was forced to explain why she had accepted a donation from the Zuma-linked Gupta family in 2009, whom the party has repeatedly accused for corruption.

So this juicy photo of the EFF’s supposed donation from Kirsh is nothing new. It’s more dirt in an ever dirtier game and no one is willing to be the first to clean up.

As I’ve said before, we can expect parties to continue acting like schoolkids in a contest for public indecency: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

Kirsch has since indicated that the document was indeed a fake and that he does not bank with Absa and has not donated to the EFF.

Correction: Initially, the headline of this article referred to Kirsch’s Jewish religion. As this is not relevant for the point the author is making, the reference has been removed.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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