Calls for regulation of internal party election funding

Political party funding transparency group My Vote Counts says the Political Party Funding Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, covers political organisations and not individuals. (David Harrison/M&G)

Political party funding transparency group My Vote Counts says the Political Party Funding Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, covers political organisations and not individuals. (David Harrison/M&G)

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane says President Cyril Ramaphosa spent hundreds of millions of rands to win the ANC presidency. He is contesting the entire investigation that included this conclusion. But, regardless of the outcome of his application to have her work set aside, the revelation has widened the conversation about whether or not individuals should be covered by party funding regulations.

At the moment, these regulations — when they come into force — will require that political parties reveal their donors.
That doesn’t apply to individuals, like the president, in their own political campaigns. This, according to one group, could allow for politicians with dubious backing to dominate the local political landscape. 

Ramaphosa was accused, in a report released last week by the public protector, of misleading Parliament when he answered a parliamentary question about a payment received by the CR17 ANC presidential campaign from African Global Operations, formerly known as Bosasa.

Ramaphosa told a media briefing at the weekend that, while still deputy president and a member of the National Assembly, he did not disclose details of his campaign fund to his then-boss former president Jacob Zuma.

Mkhwebane used this lack of disclosure as the basis of her charge that Ramaphosa violated the executive ethics code.

Political party funding transparency group My Vote Counts says the Political Party Funding Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, covers political organisations and not individuals.

The group’s Zahira Grimwood says: “Although the Act will require political parties to disclose their donations it would not require individual candidates in political parties to disclose their campaign funding.”

She says additional laws may be needed to manage campaign finances for politicians contesting party elections.

While Ramaphosa may be in hot water over donations to his campaign for the ANC presidency, his counterpart across the aisle found himself in a similar situation after contesting the Democratic Alliance (DA) leadership in 2015.

Mmusi Maimane was called before Parliament’s ethics committee for failing to disclose campaign contributions in Parliament’s declaration of member’s interests, following a leadership contest against former party federal chairperson Wilmot James.

Parliament’s joint committee on ethics and members’ interests recommended Maimane be fined and reprimanded for failing to disclose donations.

But the DA leader had the committee’s decision set aside by the Western Cape high court for failing to follow due process. He told the Mail & Guardian that: “I declared all campaigning financing to the DA, and if you go to the records of Parliament I submitted who funded my internal campaign.”

Maimane says his case is different from that of Ramaphosa because he was not running to be head of state. “Without trying to conflate the two issues, there are two problems: One is the question of declaration, and two, we must establish how a company like Bosasa would give contracts to a family member of the incoming president. Is that not exposing the president to a risk of conflict of interest?”

But Grimwood says all publicly elected officials hold influence in society and should, therefore, disclose who’s funding their campaigns whether it be in internal party elections or external polls.

In local government elections, independent candidates are allowed to contest for seats in municipal councils.

An appeal to the Constitutional Court on whether individuals can contest provincial and national elections will be heard in August.

Grimwood says current regulations create a grey area, where elected officials can hide behind trusts and campaign war chests to back them. “We’ve seen with legal contestation around whether Cyril Ramaphosa — who is obligated to disclose —  argued that funding for his CR17 campaign was allocated to trust accounts and not in his name. That argument was also brought forward by Mmusi Maimane.”

Grimwood says this could result in political parties also hiding campaign donations behind similar trusts and external entities. “This exposes the loopholes that political parties can utilise to prevent disclosure. If you have third party accounts or investment entities, like the ANC has chancellor house, they can argue they don’t have to disclose of funds accrued in those accounts or trusts because it’s not money allocated to their campaigns. But it’s still in the benefit of their parties.”

This is similar to the explanation that Ramaphosa gave when he said he did not know about any donations made to his campaign. He told journalists at the Union Buildings at the weekend that: “The campaign managers took a conscious decision where they said, ‘you are the candidate, and we are going to be the managers… there will be people on the ground who will raise money, arrange meetings.  You will never get to know about that.’”

Grimwood says that, left unattended, politicians with dubious money backers could rise up in party ranks and become power brokers in the country’s political landscape. “Considering how expensive election campaigns are and the different methodologies and means candidates are utilising to campaign, they would need large sums of money to reach a point where they have influence in a political party.”

Ensuring that this doesn’t happen would require that party funding laws are changed, she says. 

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