Editorial: Stay vigilant on party funding Bill

In 2012, as details emerged of just how much money Chancellor House, the ANC’s corporate front, was earning from deals with the likes of Eskom, the ruling party promised to speed up legislation that would radically overhaul political party funding in South Africa.

Nothing happened for the next five years, unless you count the ANC’s work to derail efforts by agitators from small political parties to force just such funding reform.

The Democratic Alliance, that resolute campaigner against systems that enable corruption, made a public-relations meal of Chancellor House. The official opposition party also, simultaneously, flatly refused even to disclose what percentage of its own donations came from foreign sources. Then it pretended not to see the contradiction.

This week the high court confirmed what a minority in the Constitutional Court said last year: the right to vote is significantly diluted when voters do not know who funds political parties.

That the courts had to make such an obvious pronouncement at all is by itself a severe indictment of the ANC and the DA. Yes, when foreign entities (not to mention local business interests) can make unlimited, unmonitored payments into party coffers, then our sovereignty is for sale. Whether it finds a buyer is of no account. That it is on the shelf at all is unacceptable. That it remained there thanks to the connivance of the two parties for which the overwhelming majority of South Africans vote is something those voters should not soon forget.

The ANC, to its limited credit, did not oppose the action by My Vote Counts, which led to that high court ruling this week. The DA, by contrast, fought tooth and nail to prevent a ruling that would ultimately force the creation or amendment of law to make party funding more transparent.

It is perhaps no accident that a draft law to reform party funding is open for public comment just as the high court ruled that the Constitution demands transparency. No doubt the ANC, at least, and perhaps even the DA, will ultimately try to take credit for a “voluntary” process.

But it is surprising just how simple and elegant the solution encoded in that draft Political Party Funding Bill is — for now.

The law, as it stands, interferes not at all in the relationship between legitimate donors and political parties. It merely demands the public disclosure of all such donations. Want to contribute to democracy at a party level anonymously? No problem. Your donation will be fairly split between all the parties in Parliament. This is contrary to the positions of both major parties. The ANC has long held that funding reform should be by way of an increase — probably a very large one — in taxpayer funds paid directly to parties.

The DA, on the other hand, has consistently argued that only anonymous donations can secure opposition parties the money they need to balance the power of a ruling party without putting the funders in the crosshairs of that ruling party.

Neither party got its wish in the draft Bill, and there is no hope for them in the high court order now to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

And that in itself should keep us on our guard. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the draft and the law, and the ANC and the DA have another year and a half to substitute progress with empty promises again. 

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