/ 23 May 2024

Money seeks a bedfellow and we need to know who’s sleeping with who

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Relative wealth: Business person Patrice Motsepe, who is also the brother-in-law of President Cyril Ramaphosa, is one of the country’s biggest donors to political parties. Photo: Sebastian Frej/Getty Images

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a political party to wed. 

I’m sure that’s what Ms Austen meant to write and never was a truer word spoken. Mr Darcy and Ms Bennett be damned, the real love story is between your favourite political party and their biggest donor. 

To paraphrase Ms Austen, what good is money if it is not earning you even greater dividends, whether in matrimony or politics?

The Regency setting of Pride and Prejudice, with all its balls and fanfare may seem a world away from politics but, then again, the world of politics is just one carefully orchestrated dance to attract attention and artfully hide reputation-damaging secrets, only to reveal them when it best suits you. At least that’s what I learnt watching Bridgerton.

All eyes are on the political dance leading up to 29 May in what is consistently labelled one of the most important elections since 1994. The shock at the ANC possibly losing its majority for the first time in 30 years has taken us down a rabbit hole of political what-ifs and maybes. 

That political parties seem ever more focused on zeroing in on the potential catastrophe that is the governing party’s defeat at the polls is positively Shakespearean. 

With political opponents of the ANC circling the possible defeat of the ailing giant, the wheeling and dealing of these political parties has never been more important. 

In this new world order, where the struggle stalwart can no longer dictate the political rules, what can we expect from our politics? 

Or better yet, what can we expect from the people working behind the scenes hoping to change the dance of our politics?

The world of fiction might not be that far off from the world of fact, here in the land of politics. 

Organisations such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance  have for years been raising the alarm on another truth acknowledged, but not acted upon, which is that money in politics can determine the shape of a democracy. 

Money is needed for political parties to carry out their duties but we should be wary of big money that can carry influence. 

In the most recent funding disclosures under the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) a staggering R172 million in private donations was declared. The highest amount declared yet in any quarter. 

Of this, R120 million came from just five individuals: Patrice Motsepe, Martin Moshal, Michiel le Roux, Nicholas Oppenheimer and Jonathan Oppenheimer. Nearly 70% of donations came from this group alone. 

But what is the problem with this? We see the money coming in, so that should be enough, right? Surely seeing is believing and, if not believing, seeing must be knowing. 

But when last did you pay for something and receive nothing in return? Flipping through Netflix with no end in sight might come to mind but even they drop some gems sometimes. 

I wonder, if the intermittent good programming were to stop altogether, would anyone continue using the platform? I would guess that very few would. 

So, if we accept money is paid for something in return, what do we make of political donations? There is an argument that giving money to a political party is a form of freedom of expression. What, I suppose, you get in return is the knowledge that you helped contribute to a political cause that you believe in and one which hopefully will govern. 

These returns are noble, perhaps even altruistic, but when my R100 donation is stacked up against a R10 million Oppenheimer donation, does my political party weigh these the same way? 

When this large donation can be counted upon every quarter, is investment in my needs and wants as your ordinary supporter worth your time when the potential dividends seem greater in a partnership with the big-money spender?

Now, this might indeed be a prejudiced take on political financing — some might even say a folly of my pride — but when we have witnessed massive corruption scandals such as state capture, is a little weariness and cynicism not prudent? 

The PPFA was enacted in the wake of the state capture years and was envisioned as a law that would bring greater transparency and accountability to a space that has traditionally been shrouded in much secrecy. 

In fact, it is our constitutional right to have access to information that might be necessary for the exercising of an informed vote, private funding included. 

Oppenheimer, Nicholas Frank South African Business Executive,chair.
Funding: Six members of Nicholas Oppenheimer’s (above) family gave donations to various political parties, making a potentially powerful bloc. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/Getty Images

In its 2018 ruling on My Vote Counts NPC v Minister of Justice and Correctional Services and Another, the constitutional court noted: “The reality is that private funders do not just thoughtlessly throw their resources around. They do so for a reason and quite strategically.  

“Some pour in their resources because the policies of a particular party or independent candidate resonate with their world outlook or ideology.  Others do so hoping to influence the policy direction of those they support to advance personal or sectional interests. 

“Money is the tool they use to secure special favours or selfishly manipulate those who are required to serve and treat all citizens equally.”

The court went on to say that, “Secrecy enables corruption and conduces more to a disposition by politicians that is favourable towards those who funded them privately once elected into public office.” 

The court in its judgment clearly pointed out the fundamental need for the public to know precisely who funds their political parties and why money is so central to political decision-making. 

Taking this context into account, one might assume that, with the arrival of the PPFA and the amendment of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (which now explicitly allows access to private funding information of political parties), that much has been done in the way of combatting this secrecy and dismantling a political culture that seems to serve the interests of a few. 

But even with the PPFA, which is the first legislation of its kind in South Africa, we have not yet managed to exorcise big money in politics. 

Clearly, there is still a disconnect between knowing something and affecting real change. Perhaps one of the greatest causes of the disconnect, and the reason only partial funding transparency continues, is that while the PPFA allows us to see some donations, it still does not allow for a full private funding picture. 

The bones of this law have the potential to be really effective but it is not yet fully realised. The continued attempts to cut its ability to ensure transparency are perhaps evidence of how powerful this law could be, if it were only given the chance. 

Access to information is a cornerstone of our politics, founded upon the notion that politics should not happen behind closed doors. To maintain a democracy that can serve the needs of all, we need to have mechanisms that allow us to scrutinise political decision-making. 

One way to do this is to have access to all donations, not just the ones over the disclosure threshold. Full transparency is the first step in breaking the ties between private influence and politics. 

The law’s attempts at cutting off opportunistic donors with an upper-limit cap of R15 million, while good on paper, is actually a porous limit, given that the PPFA does not track interrelated donors. 

This has given rise to a situation where at least six members of the Oppenheimer family could donate to various political parties, easily circumventing this upper limit and, seemingly defying logic and reason, that these donors might share the same source of wealth and together make a powerful donating bloc. 

Motsepe has also been able to donate millions to many political parties through two of his companies and, as far as the law is concerned, this is all peachy. 

Bear in mind that, if the president’s brother-in-law decided that, in addition to these company donations, he would also like to donate in his personal capacity, he may legally do so. 

I believe this is what people mean when they say peering behind the curtain shatters all illusions. 

Despite some issues already existing in the law, the political and legislative machinery behind the PPFA delivered another blow to the Act’s efficacy which not even a plot twist from Ms Austen could rival. 

To satisfy the requirements of the Electoral Amendment Act which now allowed the inclusion of independent candidates, various consequential amendments were needed to other pieces of legislation to comply with this change. The PPFA was one of these. 

In the Electoral Matters Amendment Act, operational since 8 May, and which effectively amended the PPFA, the disclosure threshold and the upper limit were done away with. 

The president is the only person allowed to set these limits and he can only do so after a resolution from the National Assembly. While that might seem to be a check on the president’s power, he is in fact still able to set these limits at any point he wishes. 

Parliament is under no obligation to advise him on what these limits are and, even if they suggested guidelines, he is not obligated to follow them.  

Even a slight increase in the upper limit and disclosure threshold would further entrench secrecy and cut off the possibility for accountable politics. 

At the time of writing, the National Assembly had passed the resolution necessary for the president to set the limits, but the president had not yet done so. This means that a funding free-for-all is now in place. Any amount can be donated and there is no legal obligation to disclose this. 

Imagine then a world where donation limits are set at heights of R20 million or R50 million. Access to all private donations is perhaps an antidote to this silliness by allowing the public full access and the ability to interrogate all donations, no matter the amount. 

Lawmakers seem only too comfortable maintaining just a façade of commitment to transparency and accountability. This was evidenced in a report issued by the Information Regulator on compliance with the Promotion of Access to Information Amendment Act, which includes access to private funding information. 

The Information Regulator noted that most political parties do not comply with this Act and that information on private funding that should be made easily available by these parties to the public is in fact not done at all. 

As if that was not problematic enough, just a few weeks ago the IEC took 486 political parties to the electoral court for failure to comply with the PPFA. None of these parties submitted an audited financial statement of their private funding donations and all but one was fined. 

Taken together, a worrisome trend of non-compliance and apparent nonchalance emerges. This in a time when transparency and accountable politics is of paramount importance. 

The lacklustre support and non-commitment to these ideals is a big political misfire which only serves to undermine public trust. The cloud of secrecy continues to hang heavily over South African politics.

As we edge ever closer to the all-important national elections, the universally acknowledged fact of money seeking a bedfellow needs to be interrogated. 

Like any entertaining toxic relationship, it might be good for a few gasps and shocks but after a while it becomes tiresome and must be changed. But if Mr Darcy with all his snooty ways could overcome the maxim of his day and shun money, perhaps there is hope for us yet. 

Robyn Pasensie is a political party funding researcher at the nonprofit organisation My Vote Counts.