The DA Leader Debates and Transparency

2015-04-30 19:40

Wilmot James MP

Wilmot James, the outsider seeking to halt Mmusi Maimane’s ascendancy to the Democratic Alliance leadership, has already changed the future of South African democracy. By challenging Maimane to a Leaders’ Debate on national television, a fact disputed by Maimane’s camp, James has done much to ensure transparency in the way all parties choose their leaders.

Parties understandably want to hide these contests because they tend to be ugly. The impetus lies in their desire to avoid seeming hypocritical when they present a united front when attacking their opponents. The irony, of course, is that everyone knows just how ugly and divisive these races are. And, South African voters, just like American and British counterparts, don’t seem to care. Transparency is concomitant with accountability.

And James has gone one step further by recently challenging Maimane to disclose who his funders are.

Considering James is self-funded, this is a clever move. Much like with the forced choice on a public debate, Maimane is against it: if he accepts, he has to expose who supports him, allowing the public to question at what cost; and, if he rejects it, the public will inevitably wonder what he has to hide. Despite the obvious self-interest in James’ move, couching it in the language of public interest and transparency arguably sanitises its self-serving nature.

In doing so, James has inadvertently opened a can of worms that, yet again, the DA and other major political parties will find difficult to avoid in future. Earlier this year, the political NGO ‘My Vote Counts’ approached the Constitutional Court to compel the National Assembly to force political parties to disclose their funding. After the DA, under Helen Zille, was at pains to explain why it agrees with transparency in principle but disagreed in practice because a single party exposing its funders means that its supporters bear an undue risk, James may have forced the DA to take a position the party will struggle with.

Some may suggest that is risky. Others will, rightly, contend that for a liberal party that pins itself so strongly to advancing the Constitution, and the rule of law, the DA is quickly clearing the ideological waters it stood accused of previously muddying. And James is doing much of the work to do that even though he may not end up the captain of the DA ship.

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