Ralph Mathekga

Concourt ruling on political party funding could prevent more state capture

2018-06-25 08:40
The National Assembly of Parliament (Photo: Jan Gerber)

The National Assembly of Parliament (Photo: Jan Gerber)

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The decision by the Constitutional Court that Parliament should pass the law under which political parties are compelled to disclose the sources of their private funding is a remarkable step in strengthening South Africa's democracy. 

Despite their differences and sometimes appearing as enemies, the dominant political parties in South Africa were united in their reluctance to disclose information as to who their sources of private funding are. 

Political parties in South Africa attain funding from the tax payer, where funds are divided among parties in line with the proportion of their representation in Parliament. 

This system – i.e. public funding of political parties – has challenges in the sense that those parties that attained a higher percentage of votes in the elections receive a lion’s share of funding from the tax payer; allowing for such a party to continue to dominate simply because it has dominated in the previous elections. 

We will deal with that challenge later. In addition to receiving public funds, political parties raise funds from private donors. They've never had to disclose who those donors are because we had no law that compels them to disclose such information. 

It is very expensive to run a political party and prepare for elections, and parties often accept funding from private donors who want to use their deep pockets to influence the direction that the party takes in terms of policy, for example. 

In such an arrangement, the voters get short-changed as parties are opening themselves up to influence by funders, instead of delivering on what they promised their voters. The worst part of this is that voters would not know who the private funders of the parties are. That was until the court’s decision last week that voters are entitled to know who funds political parties. 

With this critical information available to voters, they would be in a position to build a solid relationship with the parties – a relationship based on full access to information. When a party assumes a policy position that is inexplicable in the eyes of the voters, it would be clear as to whose interests the party is serving. 

One can go even further in explaining how critical the court’s decision is (because there is just no overstating its importance on democratic consolidation in South Africa). 

The decision has the potential to weed out sinister donors who donate to political parties with only one intention in mind: to capture the party and subsequently the state. 

If South Africa had a law that compelled political parties to disclose their sources of private funding, state capture would not have affected our institutions to the extent that it did. State capture was initiated because there was a channel through which money could make its way to a political party without the party having to disclose the source of the funding. The secrecy regarding parties' private sources of funding is to a greater extent responsible for the recent corrosion of state institutions.

It will take a while before political parties realise that it may be costly for them to accept money from dodgy private funders. This information might appear mundane to voters who are concerned with delivery of services. As the practice of disclosure of private funding becomes part and parcel of our politics, political parties will also use this information to criticise each other and explain to voters why party B is better than party A.

The Constitutional Court's decision is an important step towards the elimination of illicit money in our politics. To survive under the new arrangement where disclosure of private funding is compulsory, political parties have to go back to the drawing board and find a way to reach out to their voters.

Parties can no longer secretly enter into deals with private donors at the expense of the voters. Voters will also be aware of what they get themselves into when they vote for their respective parties because they would know who funds those parties.  

Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes.

 Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    political parties  |  funding
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