Anxiety grows over party funding Bill

Civil society groups fear President Cyril Ramaphosa is being lobbied about not signing the Political Party Funding Bill until after the 2019 election.

Meanwhile, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is “anxiously” awaiting the enactment of the Bill.

Civil society groups such as My Vote Counts, Right2Know, the Dullah Omar Foundation, Corruption Watch and the Open Democracy Advice Centre have launched a campaign to get Ramaphosa to sign the Bill this year.

“There are many people [who are lobbying him]. [Some political parties] know the status quo is going to change so, if they can hold off until after the election, the better for them,” My Vote Counts national coordinator Janine Ogle said this week. “We fear that people are trying to pressure him to wait until after the elections.”

If passed, the general election, expected to take place before June, will mark the first time South Africans go to the ballot knowing who is providing financial backing to the parties.

Once signed, the Bill will allow the IEC to create a multiparty fund to which the public can make donations to political parties. It will also be able to modify the political parties fund and establish a regulatory body to receive declarations on donor identities.

Last year My Vote Counts successfully applied to the Constitutional Court to have the Protection and Access to Information Act revised to force political parties to declare their donors. This year the court ordered Parliament either to review the Act or pass new legislation that would compel parties to declare who their donors are.

“So the party funding Bill being signed into law would mean Parliament has fulfilled the order,” Ogle said.

But the court set a deadline of October 2019 for the order to be fulfilled, leaving Ramaphosa with the option of waiting until after the elections.This week, his spokesperson, Khusela Diko, confirmed the president had received the Bill and said the presidency’s legal advisers were scrutinising it.

“Whilst he [Ramaphosa] appreciates the urgency of all Bills before him, the president has a constitutional obligation to satisfy himself independently that any legislation brought to him for assent is constitutional,” Diko said.

“To this end, he has directed the presidency legal team to advise and provide substantive legal opinions on the constitutionality of the Bill, over and above any submissions received by members of the public to the presidency.” But the IEC is preparing for Ramaphosa to sign the Bill before the elections and has already started developing the framework within which political parties will declare their donors, vice-chairperson Terry Tselane said.

“From the beginning we were under the impression that this was going to happen before the 2019 elections. The focus of the organisation has been on trying to establish some kind of framework so we will be ready. We are anxious that it gets finalised.”

The IEC initially asked the treasury for R46-million to set up a party funding regulator but the treasury agreed to only R20-million.

Tselane said the IEC expects to receive the money after the November medium-term budget policy statement.

“Once the president has signed it, we will get a team together to check what kind of regulations are required, then advertise for the positions needed,” Tselane said.

He added that the IEC will be careful not to compromise preparations for the elections by delegating its staff to set up the party funding regulator.

“There should be a skeleton structure running the project. Some of the people running this are also involved in running the systems for the elections and we don’t want to take too many away from it,” she said.

But My Vote Counts and Right2Know have set a back-up plan in motion and this week wrote to all political parties in Parliament and invoked section 32.1 of the Constitution regarding private donor information.The section reads: “Everyone has the right of access to any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.”

The letter requests information on all donations, including loans, dividends, payments and interest, for the past five years and on the identities of donors who have given more than R10 000 to any political party.

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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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