Toughen up party funding Bill, NGOs say

Cosatu and civil society groups have called on Parliament to make the Political Party Funding Bill stricter, by eliminating secret donations and placing a R35 000 cap on individual donations.

“We must disclose all donations. Even if it’s one cent,” Cosatu’s parliamentary officer, Matthew Parks, said. “We don’t think there is an administrative, energy or time argument that can be made that they are too busy to disclose their donations.”

The Bill currently states that the identity of any person who donates more than R100 000 must be made public. But Parks said this threshold was “dangerous”.

“It threatens the principles of the entire Bill. It contradicts the other part of the Bill, which says parties must disclose all donations to the auditors. We are totally against it.”

Cosatu’s proposals were heard during the public hearings for the funding Bill in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).

Organisations such as the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac), Right to Know (R2K), the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and the Free Market Foundation also made their submissions to MPs on Wednesday.

The Bill will set up South Africa’s first regulator for political party funding. It was adopted in the National Assembly last month and was passed with majority support from almost all of the parties, except the Democratic Alliance.

In the NCOP this week, the My Vote Counts (MVC) organisation called for all companies that do business with the state to be prevented from donating to political parties.

“And we propose a two-year cooling-off period … After a company has done business with the state and no longer has contact with that party, it can donate,” MVC party funding researcher Zahira Grimwood said.

The MVC also called for a cap of R34 640 to placed on single donations from individuals. “The amount decided on must be pegged to the average annual income of the most marginalised income group in South Africa, which is black African women,” Grimwood said.

The Bill currently stipulates that an individual may donate up to R15‑million each financial year to any political party, on condition that his or her identity is made public. But the MVC said this figure poses a serious threat.

“The risk is that it could make the party completely dependent on a single donor,” Grimwood said.

The MVC is a nonprofit organisation campaigning for transparency and accountability during elections. In March, it launched a Constitutional Court challenge against the Protection of Access to Information Act (Paia) because it does not allow access to party funding records.

On Wednesday, the court confirmed a 2017 Western Cape high court ruling that this aspect of Paia was constitutionally invalid.

The court ordered that the disclosure of private funding information must be recorded, preserved and made easily accessible by the state. It also declared that Parliament must amend Paia and “take any measure it deems appropriate” to facilitate public access to this information.

But the court declined to interfere in the Parliamentary process to regulate private donations.

At the public hearings, the MVC also proposed that the Bill be changed to entirely disallow donations from foreign governments or entities, a suggestion supported by Cosatu.

R2K spokesperson Murray Hunter said the cap on secret donations should be placed at R10 000. But R2K was more concerned about how the legislation would be monitored after implementation if none of the parties’ past income or expenditure records were made public.

“There is a necessary provision [required] for researchers and historians to understand what the income has looked like for political parties and going forward, whether we would see a change in that income and whether regulations have been positive or negative,” Murray said.

In the Constitutional Court, MVC had also asked that Parliament should be ordered to “continuously and systematically” record donor information. Even though the MVC won overall in the high court, that court had refused to grant this particular order. The MVC then appealed this aspect at the Constitutional Court.

But the appeal was dismissed, and the Constitutional Court said it was up to Parliament to decide on whether to report regularly on political party funding from private donors, because if the court intervened it would be contrary to the doctrine of the separation of powers.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, the chairperson of Casac’s advisory panel on the Bill, Richard Calland, said if it was passed, the Political Party Funding Bill could become one of South Africa’s finest pieces of legislation.

Casac proposed that the threshold for a secret donation be dropped to R50 000 and cautioned that, “to a smaller party, with a modest budget, R99 000 could [buy the donor secret influence]”.

The media’s concerns with the Bill centred on access to information about donors if secret donations were allowed and the absence of a disclosure regime that would apply to political party investment funds.

AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism advocacy co-ordinator Karabo Rajuili said: “The Bill is completely silent on this matter. We would recommend either parties’ investment arms should be prohibited in totality or, if that’s not possible, there should be a public disclosure regime around any money that parties are able to draw from dividends and company shares.”

The Free Market Foundation recommended postponing the implementation of the Bill. Its submission warned that it could dissuade companies that do business with the state from making further donations to opposition parties.

One of the only areas of agreement on the Bill at the NCOP hearings was the establishment of a multiparty fund.

The proposed fund would hold all donations to the political parties above a R100 000 threshold, and would then distribute a third of each donation proportionally according to the vote count.

Public hearings are expected to continue this month in provincial legislatures around the country. The NCOP will then decide whether the Bill should be passed or sent back to the National Assembly.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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