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
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
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
"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
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
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
February is head of Idasa's
Political Information Monitoring Service - SA.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Published on the web by
the Cape Times on October 14, 2003.