Editorial: Lift the veil on party funding

In May this year, Baleka Mbete, the speaker in the National Assembly, told Parliament that an ad hoc committee on party funding would be established. You might say that was pretty swift: a mere three months have elapsed since that statement was made to the formal beginnings of the committee’s work.

But the governing party’s commitment to addressing this issue goes back at least to 2005, when the chief political parties were taken to court by civil society to try to make them transparent about their funding sources.

And, as analyst Judith February points out, there was a strong push for such transparency from the ANC, which was articulated at the Polokwane conference in 2007 – but somehow that commitment by the party leadership was sidelined or forgotten in all the noise around Jacob Zuma’s victory in seizing the ANC presidency.

It should also be noted that in her statement of intent in May Mbete somewhat put the cart before the horse. She first said the committee’s job would be “to work towards finalising how best political parties can be afforded more funding by the fiscus”.

“The other issue,” she went on, as if this were an afterthought or at least a secondary consideration, “that needs more accountability and regulation is the source of private funding [for] political parties.”

Actually, madam speaker, the accountability and transparency should come first, and then perhaps we can move on to political parties voting themselves more money from the state. The parties will argue that they need to fill the gap left by all those funders who now do not want to be named and seen to fund a particular party – and you can be sure all the parties will be unanimous on this issue, regardless of their bitter divisions on other matters. As with salary increases for MPs, political rivals show unusual unity when such issues are being decided.

We have seen how secret party funding has corrupted politicians, or has allowed corrupt politicians to cover their tracks by ensuring some of the money from private sources, which will always have an agenda, goes to their party. How does that funding play out in party policy? Whose interests are being served? We don’t really know, because we’re usually not informed about who has funded which party – or which bloc in a party. Besides, if funders can’t be open about which party or parties they support financially, isn’t there a problem?

Any number of allegations have appeared linking party funding to the funding of individual leaders by private capital, never mind the buying and selling of votes – or whole branches – to benefit individuals or blocs in a party. This distorts the whole process, factionalising parties and placing individual ambition above policy. It corrupts our democracy.

Please, Parliament, make our political parties honest.

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