The allure of money and party conduct

2009-03-17 00:00

Political party funding has again become a hot political issue. It was always going to be as parties battle it out for a great opportunity to unseat the governing ANC or at least reduce its majority in Parliament. This is because its huge financial resources allow the ANC to out-muscle other parties in this close contest for power.

For instance, two weeks ago the party had simultaneous rallies in various provinces, while its other leaders did door-to-door campaigns in the provinces where there were no rallies being held.

There is hardly a street where I have been, from Bhisho to Thohoyandou, where there isn’t an ANC poster. Its TV and radio adverts are breaking new and expensive terrain in the use of technology to garner votes. Then there are these dinner parties held with various sectors. The DA follows some distance behind the ANC both in financial clout and political advertising.

Now other parties are complaining that this unequal access to funds is perpetuating an uneven playing ground.

The UDM recently wrote a letter of complaint to Absa after the bank indicated that it would provide funding for parties after the elections. “There has been a legitimate expectation that Absa would fund political parties before the elections along the format used in 2004,” wrote UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, “in order for us to be able to conduct the expensive work of campaigning …

“Proper campaigns enable the voters to make informed electoral choices and is absolutely critical for a healthy multi-party democracy.”

He alleged that the bank has been intimidated by the wealthy ANC into starving opposition parties, almost suggesting that the bank is playing a purely political game.

Elaborating his conspiracy theory, Holomisa alleged that this is not inconceivable as many in the bank’s management have connections with the ruling party.

The letter also suggests that transformation at Absa amounts to parachuting ANC operatives into decision-making structures of the bank. If the bank does not review its decision, Holomisa said, it would virtually be party to the annihilation of opposition parties and multi-party democracy. This just highlights the extent to which parties are willing to go in order to register their discontent over money: blackmail, intimidation, and laments.

The focus is on getting money to fight elections rather than to sharpen policy skills, strengthen policy advice or to build strong and effective political parties. Several provincial legislatures recently voted for apportionment of taxpayers’ funds to parties currently represented, including those born out of floor-crossing — the crosstitutes, some would say. We are told that unlike the case of legislation and policy on pertinent challenges facing people on the ground, opposition parties do not oppose this one.

Convergence of interest around getting money for fighting elections and helping MPs keep their salaries has superseded the zeal to oppose or to offer alternative ideas for people’s welfare.

There has been some outcry about these decisions from some quarters, albeit for dishonest reasons at times, but none of the parties has ventured to score political points on this one.

Money talks! Is this not a version of cross-party cronyism, a far cry from an equal opportunity society or true democracy that parties promise?

SABMiller has just decided to give R5 million to five major parties before the April 22 elections.

Obviously, the already rich ANC and DA will receive a large chunk of this money. On the basis of the number of seats in parliament, other qualifying parties are the UDM and ID. But, guess what, the fifth party is the newly formed Cope with no seats in parliament. According to SABMiller, Cope qualifies on the basis of “public opinion”. The only parties that will complain about this are the likes of the IFP, PAC, Azapo and ACDP because they qualified ahead of Cope in terms of the criteria applied in deciding the top four parties. The vocal UDM will forget its principles for a moment. It will not speculate if there are Cope members in the company leadership. Who would complain if they are part of the fortunate few? Okay, the principled one, of course. It is baffling, to say the least. In SA, public opinion often means the opinion of the speaker. The same logic has been used to explain media coverage. The SABMiller executives’ preference is called “public opinion”.

These moves help to perpetuate the advantage of a few parties. But the long-term consequences of this are dire. One is monetisation of politics. The second is to turn parties into electioneering machines rather than vehicles for incubating alternative policy agendas. The third is the widening of the gap between middle-class-supported and proletariat-based parties, the result of which will be the obliteration of small parties that have clearer policy agendas than some of these fashionable parties.

We must reject the power of the purse in our politics and defend the power of voice. The rich few must not be allowed to use money to engineer for us a future that they desire.

Dr Siphamandla Zondi is an analyst of policy issues on service delivery, governance and international relations in South Africa and Africa.

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