Counting the cost of election ka-ching-ching

2011-04-16 11:38

It would be interesting to see how much Helen Zille’s dancing shoes, a pair of blue-and-white All Star ­takkies festooned with the DA logo, and the ­traditional Xhosa umbaco she’s been wearing on the campaign trail might fetch at a ­future fundraising auction.

I suspect at this point they wouldn’t swell the DA’s coffers quite as much as Jacob Zuma’s leather jacket worn during his 2009 campaign, which recently went for R400 000 at an ANC ­fundraiser.

By the way, JZ’s jacket fetched more than a signed, original copy of the Freedom Charter, which says something about populism and fashion trumping history.

And, of course, there are many ways to read President Zuma’s ­reported comment at the event that: “I know if I invest in the ANC there will be good returns for my business.”

Private, secret political funding is still a thorny issue in this country and while it is easier for donors – like ­Patrice Motsepe of African Rainbow Minerals – to be seen backing the ­ruling party, it is much harder for those who fund opposition parties and who may face the tacit wrath of the ANC.

Apart from the Gupta family, that is, who seem to have been playing the field, albeit not equally, giving the United Democratic Movement a ­reported R100 000.

We’re still not sure if the DA ­benefited from Zille’s alleged pop-in at the family’s compound in ­Saxonwold in October last year.

But while the principle of openness and transparency with regard to party funding is certainly an important one, anyone will understand that in the current climate of corruption and rampant nepotism, it could be suicidal for businesses to declare openly their financial support for opposition ­parties.

Local government elections are a costly business.

The posters, the ­T-shirts, the pamphlets, the ­securing of venues, and the need for national representatives to get across the country and campaign can tally up astronomical bills.

There is no allocation of funds for municipal elections from the Representative Political Parties Fund (RPPF), administered by the electoral commission, although parties can use proportional ­money received from the fund for broad ­categories of political activity related to general campaigning.

The fund budget is a mere R77 million, with the ANC ­receiving the lion’s share.

Costs for local campaigns can run up to a whopping R60 million and the amount smaller parties could allocate from their representative fund share wouldn’t come anywhere close to that figure.

In the 1999 election, unregulated, secret funding of parties is ­believed to have outstripped transparent public funding by four to one.

Secret funding can result in ­specific interest and lobby groups – like the Guptas – “buying” influence and undermining the value and equality of citizens’ votes.

In the current climate, opposition party leaders have to work that much harder at squeezing money out of ­potential donors and supporters. The DA has a formidable team and track record in this area but it still needs to convince traditional funders to dig rather deep.

DA fundraising events are more low-key than that of the ANC.

Last week in Port Elizabeth, it was enlightening watching Zille juggle two issues – old money and traditional support versus the new vision of young, black leadership she is driving in the party.

Zille initially cut an incongruous ­figure in her umbaco and takkies. Most of the guests, particularly the women, were in cocktail dresses and strappy shoes. The men were all in suits.

Zille deliberately began her ­address to the mostly white audience in ­Xhosa, and when someone shouted out a remark that could have been deemed inappropriate; she took him immediately to task.

“This room may look like the party it once was but the DA does not look like the party it once was and is so much the better for it.”

Zille cleverly used the opportunity to imprint her brand of leadership but at the same time reassure funders of the party’s core values – “those of Nelson Mandela”.

The ANC raised R3 million at its auction in Midrand and we don’t know yet what the DA raised after Zille’s visit to PE. Insiders say it hasn’t been all uphill for the party, which is using its track record in ­governance to win over funders.

Unregulated, private, party funding is an issue across the globe and is indeed unhealthy for ­democracy.

For now we, the voters, have to rely on parties’ internal ­ethical standards. And sometimes it feels as if the ice may be rather thin.

»  Thamm is an award-winning columnist, editor and journalist 

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