Rich Mkhondo

We need elections where ideas count for more than money

2019-08-06 05:00
A woman casts her vote for the general elections at the Presbyterian Church ballot station in Dobsonville, Johannesburg, on May 8, 2019. - South Africans began voting today in national elections which the ruling ANC, in power since 1994, is favourite to win despite corruption scandals, sluggish economic growth and record unemployment. The ANC has won all the past five elections, but todays vote is set to be an electoral test on whether the party has staunched a decline in popularity. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

A woman casts her vote for the general elections at the Presbyterian Church ballot station in Dobsonville, Johannesburg, on May 8, 2019. - South Africans began voting today in national elections which the ruling ANC, in power since 1994, is favourite to win despite corruption scandals, sluggish economic growth and record unemployment. The ANC has won all the past five elections, but todays vote is set to be an electoral test on whether the party has staunched a decline in popularity. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)

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South Africa needs clear laws to force political parties to reveal the sources of funding, otherwise our democracy will be enslaved by corporate sponsors and cronyism, ultimately cheapening our political process, writes Rich Mkhondo.

He who pays the piper expects to call the tune. As we know, it is the powerful and the wealthy who fund political parties, not the marginalised and the deprived. The big question is: What do or did people who funded President Cyril Ramaphosa get or expect to get in return?

Some people may be pondering: Is the president's defense of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan because he was central to raising funds for his election?

Also, what did or will those mentioned in the News24 leaked emails as having contributed more than R200m towards President Ramaphosa's successful 2017 ANC presidential campaign get or expect to get in return?

While the president and his election machinery did nothing wrong in raising funds, in the absence of political party funding legislation, the anxieties surrounding money's role in politics will continue to fuel speculation and mistrust.

Political funding has become both global and pressing. Almost 87 years ago, James Kerr Pollock, opened his pioneering study on political finance practices in Britain, Germany and France by saying "the relation between money and politics has come to be one of the great problems of democratic government".

In more recent time, the relationship between money and politics has become more necessary because of the need to fund mass media campaigns, particularly television and large billboard advertising campaigns across the country.

Election campaigns have become more costly. Poor parties do not win elections because they cannot campaign effectively and get their message across to the masses. Parties need money to pay workers and hold meetings and rallies. They need money to run effective public relations machineries.

Parties and their leaders are under immense pressure to raise large sums of money and thus become susceptible to engaging in illegal acts and corruptible. 

We are not alone in the political party funding dilemma. All democracies are faced with the challenge of trying to ensure equality, fairness, transparency and integrity in political fundraising. We need only look to the United States, where the issue remains a hot potato after more than half a century.

America's dilemma was best summarised by the late Senator Edward Kennedy when he said: "…the lack of transparency of private funding enables the great corporate interests that control the economy of our countries to impose their own agendas on governments, congresses and docile parliaments through the unlimited financing of parties and candidates, which will then represent their particular interests and not those of the people who elect them. This is a breeding ground for corruption in the public administration, since the representative is not account able to his electors, but loyal to those who paid his campaign expenditures."

These sentiments have prompted legislative efforts across the globe to define, clarify and regulate political party funding.  

Seventeen years ago US lawmakers approved the most comprehensive package of political finance regulation in a generation, claiming that it would "help untangle the web of money and influence that has made the Congress and the White House so vulnerable to the appearance of corruption".

Far-reaching political finance reforms have also been enacted in Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, to name but a few cases.

Today, virtually every democracy exerts some legal control over the flow of money to and from election campaigns and other party activities. A successive wave of democratisation and the rising cost of political campaigns spurred the need for transparency. The growing awareness of the risks posed by corruption to the viability of democratic elections have moved the funding of political activity to the centre of public debates all over the world, including here on our shores.

We all acknowledge that democracy is a system resulting from popular governments born out of the support of the majority of the people. And so it follows that to win over the majority of the people, either the party must have effective grassroots fundraising machinery or must depend on larger contributions from corporates or individual businessmen.

Here is how secret political funding endangers our democracy:

  • Unrestricted and secret flow and distribution of political funds impinge directly on electoral equality, on the actual possibilities enjoyed by candidates and parties to put their message across to the voters.
  • While we need to hear our leaders and political party messages, too much money bestows on parties and candidates an unevenly distributed opportunity to directly participate in elections. Therefore when political power merely reflects economic power, the principle of "one man, one vote" loses its significance and democracy ceases its role to counterbalance economic power.
  • The dangerous influence of political funding comes when the millions paid influences opportunities for the articulation of quid pro quos between private donors and policy makers, or, at a minimum, for the emergence of continuous conflicts of interest for the latter.   
  • At best, secret political donations or fundraising can jeopardise the public interest and at worst destroy the integrity and autonomy of policy makers and privatise their decisions.

There is no doubt that the purchase of influence and access is a form of public corruption, and if the current commissions are anything to go by, secret political funding here and across the world has a long and intimate relationship with corruption.

In many cases political party contributions put the party under obligation. If the party wins and forms a government, it will have to return the financial favours. This, in fact, means the party has been bribed and favours are payback for the financial support.

That subtle payback to political funders may come in many forms such as giving them tenders or passing legislation favouring politically connected companies or even rendering a personal service to a donor such as granting them a licence or a permit for whatever.

By secretly giving the party money, a businessman or a company is in fact bribing a future government and political leaders for special consideration.

Therefore complete transparency and honesty about party funding, by individuals, institutions and corporations, should be the cornerstone of our thriving democracy.

If our parliament does not build checks and balances on political campaign funding, political parties and billionaires or companies funding political parties will have too much power in determining what legislation is passed and not enough interest in passing laws that benefit us, the members of the public.

We need clear laws to force political parties to reveal the sources of political party funding, otherwise our democracy will be enslaved by corporate sponsors and cronyism, corruption and nepotism, ultimately cheapening our political process.

The onus is now on the parties, President Ramaphosa and the Electoral Commission to arrive at a fair solution to this increasingly grave problem.

Let us have elections where ideas count for more than money.

- Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a ghost-writing, content development and reputation management hub.

 

Read more on:    cyril ramaphosa  |  elections  |  political campaigns
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