/ 16 November 2018

Parties have a duty to reveal their donors

(David Harrison/M&G)
Parties are quick to scramble for votes, but keep the public in the dark about information that the highest court in the land has stated is crucial for an informed electorate, says the author. (David Harrison/M&G)


Over the past two years, civil society has witnessed significant gains in the fight for more transparency about political party private funding.

This year, in particular, civil society celebrated a favourable Constitutional Court judgment on the matter between My Vote Counts vs the Minister of Justice, delivered in MVC’s favour. The court confirmed political parties’ constitutional obligation to disclose publicly the sources of their private funding. In June, Parliament also adopted the Political Party Funding Bill, which the president is still to sign it into law.

Ironically, political parties are using the fact that the Bill has not yet been enacted as an excuse to continue to hide information about their private funding from the public. Organisations such as My Vote Counts and Right2Know believe that the obligation of parties to disclose this information is not dependent on the enactment of the Bill.

The Constitutional Court judgment explicitly provides the grounds on which citizens can request this information, even without legislation. After an acknowledgement that there is no enacted regulation of political parties’ private funding in section 88, the judgment states: “In the interim, it is open to those seeking access to information on private funding to do so in terms of section 32(1)(b) of the Constitution … All they would have to do is state that they require information for the exercise or protection of the right to vote.

“For the correct position is indeed that those who require information for the exercise or protection of the right to vote, reasonable access would no doubt have to be facilitated by this judgment.”

Therefore, activists took it upon themselves to request this information. On August 14, individuals from My Vote Counts and Right2Know sent letters to all 13 political parties represented in the national legislature to ask them to disclose the identity of all those who donated more than R10 000 between March 2014 and March 2018. They requested that the political parties should respond by September 10.

Of the three parties that responded, the Democratic Alliance and the Inkatha Freedom Party said they would provide the information only once the Bill was implemented, when they would be obligated to do so. The DA added that, because there was no obligation, the protection of their donors’ identities was its priority. The DA also argued that to assemble the information from the period in question would place an unrealistic burden on them leading up to the elections.

My Vote Counts and Right2Know believe these responses ignore the Constitutional Court judgment.

The Congress of the People (Cope) replied that no private funding for more than the indicated amount had been received within the period in question.

Although it should be a citizen’s democratic right to request private funding information for any period, including the time in question, the letters were limited to one national election cycle. The information would enable voters to monitor the kinds of donor relationships that all the political parties elected in 2014 have established since then.

Parties are quick to scramble for votes, but keep the public in the dark about information that the highest court in the land has stated is crucial for an informed electorate.

My Vote Counts and Right2Know have consistently given the many reasons why hiding this information contributes to political inequality. For example, the information would reveal what financial sources political parties are more likely to be responsive to. It would help the public and media to root out cases of undue influence by donors. Furthermore, exposure could deter donors and political parties from engaging in corrupt practices and reduce undue access by the elite to political parties.

The continued and exhausting battle of approaching political parties for their private funding information will end only once they are forced to disclose it. The agency lies in the hands of the president to enact legislation that will compel parties to disclose their private funding information.

Civil society has called on the public to sign a petition to urge the president to sign the Bill, which follows an open letter, signed by civil society organisations, to him requesting him to enact it. Even if the Bill is signed, it can only be implemented six months after that. Therefore, if it is not signed by November, South Africans won’t have access to the information before the elections expected to take place in May next year.

Furthermore, the current reports that both the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters have received funding from the looted and now liquidated VBS Mutual Bank is proof of why political parties must disclose their donors. It is iof utmost concern that political parties that might have secretly received funding from VBS could now be in a position to decide its fate.

How many other companies fund our political parties in secret and then have the representatives of the same political parties making political and executive decisions that determine their successes?

We will never know the answer to this question until we have complete transparency on political financing.

By claiming that disclosing this information is not practical or a priority and that donors must be protected tells South Africans that political parties’ treat votes and voters cheaply. It is a slap in the public’s face to argue that campaigning is more important than providing the public with information that is crucial for knowing how political parties operate.

And those political parties that have not responded continue to ignore their democratic obligation.

Zahira Grimwood works for My Vote Counts, a nonprofit founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics. It works to ensure that the political and electoral systems are open, fair and accountable to the public