There is no requirement in law that leaders should declare donations made to internal campaigns. It is not correct to impose some kind of standard after the fact, and to do so with respect to only one campaign, writes Jessie Duarte.
With the Public Protector's report on allegations against President Cyril Ramaphosa heading to court for a judicial review – and the question of whether she overstepped her mandate under scrutiny – the report has nevertheless placed the issue of political funding in the spotlight.
The matter has been seized upon by political opportunists of all shades to damage the president and undermine the renewal effort that he is leading. The Twitter bots have come to life and even some media outlets have gotten in on the game.
Yet, this is an important issue with which society should engage. It is an opportunity to have a public discussion about political contestation and funding. The calls for President Ramaphosa to "come clean" are misplaced and unfair. There is no requirement in law and there is no convention that leaders should declare donations made to internal campaigns. No other leaders in the ANC have done so and no other parties have done so. It is not correct to seek to establish and impose some kind of standard after the fact, and to do so with respect to only one campaign out of many.
It is also unfair to do so when the fundraisers in this case, as is the norm, made a promise to donors of confidentiality. The leak of the details of some donors should not change that commitment.
The broader reality, which some choose to forget, is that democratic contestation costs money. In a multi-party democracy, parties need to deploy resources to reach, persuade and mobilise voters. The electorate needs to be able to form a view on the policies, ideological persuasion, track record and personalities of the various parties. In a vibrant and highly-contested political terrain such as ours, a great deal of money is spent on elections.
Across the world, donors give money to political parties and leaders for campaign. In many cases – one hopes in most cases – they do so because they support the policies and programmes of the party. They often do so anonymously and without expectation of personal reward. But, as we have learnt, funding of elections and the other activities of political parties can distort or even corrupt the democratic process. It is for this reason among others that the ANC championed the adoption of the Political Parties Funding Bill, which places certain restrictions on the raising of funds and requires greater levels of transparency and accountability.
This is a historic development – which some parties vigorously opposed – that will have far-reaching consequences both for the political process and parties. As the Electoral Commission (IEC) puts in place the mechanisms to implement the bill, parties will need to come to terms with its implications.
The Political Parties Funding Bill does not extend to leadership contests within parties. These are voluntary organisations that have their own constitutions and rules to govern internal activities. It is not clear whether legislation can or should regulate such contests.
For its part, the ANC sees the current public debate as an opportunity. In responding to the Public Protector's preliminary findings, President Ramaphosa's legal team went to great lengths to explain the funding and operations of the CR17 campaign, providing a level of transparency and detail that no other presidential campaign, past or present, has done.
Therefore, at its most recent meeting, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) accepted the president's suggestion that the organisation have a discussion on its approach to internal leadership contests.
For years, the ANC has referred to the principles contained in the Through the Eye of a Needle document, but is now asking whether it provides sufficient guidance in such a contested environment. While some try to pretend otherwise, ANC leadership contests have, over time, begun to take a form not unlike a national election campaign. Groupings coalesce around different candidates and campaign for them through meetings, rallies, social media and other forms. To support these activities, all of these campaigns raise funds and nearly all ANC leaders are involved in the campaigning in one way or another.
In addition to what may be termed "legitimate" campaigning, other tendencies have also emerged that subvert the democratic process, such as vote buying and even intimidation. As the president said at the NEC: "If we are to put an end to the politics of factionalism, patronage and the unbridled contest for resources, we need, among other things, to have an honest discussion about a new approach to internal leadership contests."
The NEC of the ANC will be presented with options for discussion that will however, ensure that the branches of the ANC remain the core decision makers of who leads the ANC at all levels.
The ANC will therefore be looking at whether it should clearly define forms of campaigning that are permissible and those that are not. Should it accept that major internal contests now involve the establishment of a campaign machinery with many of the resources and functions of our traditional election campaigns?
Importantly, the discussion will consider what guidelines are needed on fundraising. How does the organisation ensure that there is greater transparency and accountability? Does it place limits on funds that can be raised, and how can it ensure that state resources aren't abused.
For the ANC, this is not simply about setting new rules. It is fundamentally about ensuring that leadership contests do indeed produce the best cadres to lead transformation. It is about using leadership contests to unite and strengthen the movement, and use them as platforms for political education and cadre development.
The ANC is undertaking this process of its own accord, understanding that democracy consumes resources, but determined that these resources should not be allowed to consume democracy. We hope that all parties and all South Africans will seize this opportunity for a necessary and meaningful debate.
- Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress.
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