Simon Williamson

Damage to the DA

2013-02-01 07:40

Simon Williamson

While the last two or so weeks in South African news have set off my vertigo, the rumpus over the love triangle among the Democrat Alliance's bank account, the Guptas and the New Age kept me rapt.
The ending to the messy saga, however, disappointed me greatly, when DA leader Helen Zille tried to explain away a donation to the DA in the most recent edition of SA Today, her sometimes-weekly newsletter, and subsequently when she outed a donor.
In her newsletter Zille mentioned that during the run-up to the 2009 elections the DA leader in the North West had a buddy who wanted to throw R200 000 (about a month's worth of electricity in today's prices) into the DA's coffers. Zille and shadow concubine Ian Davidson went to pick up this money in the form of a cheque at the Guptas' crib in Johannesburg. A year later the same person cut the DA another cheque for R100 000. And then again, but in the name of his Gupta-owned company.
By this time the Gupta stories had hit the news (the previous time, although there was nowhere near as much traction as this week) and Zille decided against any future relationship between the DA and this donor. Accompanying this newsletter was this line: "But I cannot [release the donor's name] because the DA makes a commitment of confidentiality to our donors."
A real risk

Then on Wednesday she told the media at Parliament that this donor's name was Stefan Nel, an executive director at Sahara - one of the companies in the Gupta Empire.
I don't envy Zille's position, but this is a great example of why there are rules. Granted, the rules barring us voters from knowing who is dishing out money to which political parties are crap and absolutely not in voters' interests, but in this case the DA did itself a grave disservice. Whether this donor wanted to be outed or not is beside the point; he has been.
Now, as you likely can work out, there is a very real risk in being a public donor to the Democratic Alliance - one need only look at First National Bank and their most awkward ad campaign released recently, followed by a grovelling apology.

The puppet show ZA News and the hilarious spoof site Hayibo couldn't even find advertisers because no company except for Kulula has the courage to have their brand associated remotely with something making fun of the government, let alone actual criticism. If superb jokes can't attract the wonga of corporate South Africa in any sort of public setting, how on earth is the loud and whiny opposition supposed to?

Even though this is only one donor whose name and workplace have been declared to the press, and the circumstances under which this occurred are hopefully rare, it is likely to affect anyone who is considering throwing Randelas at the Blue House due to the new risk of it being publicised. Sadly, this fracas only had to happen once for hesitancy to take effect. The outing of a donor is now a realistic concern for potential donors, because it has happened.

Good recipe for corporate donations
Abominably, there is a huge incentive to not get onto the wrong side of government, which makes it chancy even to be on Team DA (or anyone else, frankly) even before a cent has been placed in Zille's piggy bank.
Although the current rules are fully against the interests of voters, they should be applied fairly until they are changed. Zille's outing of a donor, forced or not, is not a good recipe for corporate donations next time around. As things stand, no one should be releasing details of donors until everyone is.
This has worked out very well for the ANC - potentially reducing donations to the DA through little more than intimidation, aided by a newspaper with tenuous links to editorial independence.
As South Africans we should insist on parties releasing their backers. But until all of them do, none should. This week you saw why.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer.

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