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Cheque book politics erodes ballot
14 October 2003

By Judith February

It seems that the one thing on which South Africa's major political parties agree is not wanting to say who secretly funds their myriad activities. At least not at this juncture, less than a year away from a general election. Possibly it takes transparency an uncomfortable step too far.

In South Africa, there is no regulation of private funding to political parties. What this means is that donors may give as much as they want, in secret, to the political party of their choice.

Why does the regulation of private funding to political parties matter and what is the link to poverty, underdevelopment, human rights and corruption?

To function properly, democracies require strong, independent political parties operating in an open and truly competitive political system. Parties, in turn, need money, in order for them to adequately fulfil their role. Similarly, a well-informed electorate that can exercise equal influence over the decision-making processes is a condition for genuine participatory democracy.

For some time there has been concern about the manner in which political parties in South Africa are funded and more particularly about the absence of effective rules governing the receipt of private sources of support by political parties and individuals in political parties. Allegations linking prominent international political figures to party funding scandals have been witnessed around the world.

Jacques Chirac in France is an example. Recently his former cohorts, dating back to the time when he was mayor of Paris, have gone on trial for their part in a major funding scandal. In Germany, while he was chancellor, Helmut Kohl spent years secretly and illegally lining the coffers of his party, the Christian Democrats.

And here at home allegations involving David Malatsi and Jacob Zuma are cases in point.

Whether or not the Chirac, Malatsi or Zuma allegations are true, they have drawn attention to the link between inappropriate secret funding of political parties and corruption. Corruption by members of political parties, or even the whiff of corruption, merely introduces an unwelcome level of cynicism among citizens about the political process.

Moreover, public trust in otherwise legitimate and credible institutions and processes of governance stands to be eroded. As the Indian non-government organisation, LOK SATTA, put it earlier this year following a high-level case in which the Indian Supreme Court upheld the voters' right to know the assets and liabilities of electoral candidates: "Our parties are striving hard to sustain our democracy against great odds. They need our full support.

"Equally, parties must take this as an opportunity, not a threat. This is a priceless opportunity for our political system to break itself loose from criminal elements, unaccounted and excessive money power, and increasing perception of illegitimacy of the power game."

But there is also a wider social and economic justice perspective. Political corruption increases income inequality and poverty through lower economic growth, poor targeting of social programmes and the use of money by the wealthy to lobby government for favourable policies that could have the potential to perpetuate inequality.

In a country as unequal as South Africa, allowing the wealthy to buy influence by donating as much in secret as they wish may well result in the "drowning out" of the voices of the poor and marginalised, who are unable to buy such influence.

At its heart, the regulation of party funding is a question of political equality. The one time citizens experience true equality is when they cast their vote at the ballot box.

Where there is no control over the private funding given to political parties, a situation of unfairness and distortion of electoral competition may arise, ultimately undermining the equal value of each person's vote.

When wealth is allowed to buy influence and access by unregulated secret donations, or the perception of such, the effect on political rights and participatory democracy could lead to the average citizen's voice being silenced.

All groups, including the poor and marginalised, should have an equal opportunity to influence the political processes through participation.

South Africa's civil society is a vibrant one. Trade unions, church organisations, human rights pressure groups and smaller, community organisations all contest the policy ground with vigour and dedication. Generally, they do so armed solely with the power of persuasion and argument. Meanwhile, big business exerts pressure armed with the power of its big money donations.

It is uneven playing field. Many in the former group suspect that in the early years after 1994, when the key macro-economic decisions were taken, it was the hidden hand of capital that wielded the most influence.

South Africa is by no means unique in seeking solutions to this thorny problem. In the United States, campaign finance has long been the source of much controversy and legislation there is the subject of a Supreme Court challenge. In the United Kingdom, transparency for political parties is a recent reform.

Throughout the world, though, there is an increasing trend towards openness and regulation of party funding.

Internationally, global standards on governance issues mean that the United Nations, the Commonwealth and various civil society organisations are monitoring the progress of South Africa in ensuring sufficient measures to combat corruption.

Moreover, South Africa is a signatory to the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption. This convention calls on member states to adopt legislation to regulate private funding to political parties. It is therefore only a matter of time before South Africa faces the inevitable challenge of regulation.

Some political parties see any proposal to enforce transparency and regulate party funding as a sure means to cut the flow of money they receive. But regulation should not be seen as a threat to the right to donate; there are ways of crafting the reform package so that competing rights and values can be balanced according to the South African constitutional framework.

The litigation by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) against the five largest political parties will provide such an opportunity.

Conversely, regulation of party funding seeks to minimise the undue influence of money on politics, while simultaneously recognising that money is an important feature of the modern political landscape.

Admittedly, the nuts and bolts of such a law are not straightforward - but nor do they represent an insurmountable hurdle. International experience has shown that regulation of party funding can be implemented successfully if laws are well-designed, backed by effective sanctions and accompanied by a parallel diffusion of appropriate ethics and norms.

As South Africa moves towards 10 years of democracy, the time is right for the conversation about openness to be revived.

If transparency and disclosure govern most other organisations as well as members of parliament and the executive, there is no compelling reason why political parties should be exempt from disclosure.

If they are serious about transparency in the name of socio-economic and political rights, then it's time they too joined the party.


  • February is head of Idasa's Political Information Monitoring Service - SA.

    Published on the web by the Cape Times on October 14, 2003.

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