Last week the carried a front-page story in which Paul Mashatile, treasurer-general of the ANC, stated that his party was planning to ask the exchequer to substantially increase government funding for political parties. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that proposition, if the political parties make a convincing case to support it.
Political parties constitute a vital cog in the functioning of a democratic system. It would nevertheless be expected that in seeking increased funding, the parties are cognisant of the current dire state of the economy, which has been aggravated by Covid-19 and the associated lockdown. They should also be mindful of the dictum about cutting the coat according to one's cloth.
Ominously, Mashatile also said that the ANC intended to press for changes in the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) 6 of 2018. This, it appears, is because a significant percentage of the ANC's traditional private funders do not like certain provisions of that act, in particular, its requirements for transparency.
"Since the president signed the act, we have found it very difficult to fund-raise from the private sector."
He did not indicate why the funders preferred to remain anonymous. It is fair to point out, though, that there are well-founded fears among funders of opposition parties and critics of the government that disclosing their identities could expose them to victimisation, such as exclusion from government business opportunities. How sad! But this cannot be used as a justification to derail key provisions of the act.
Mashatile did not say whether he had also given thought to the possibility that what was drying up corporate funding wells might well be the ANC's embarrassing association with corruption. With the rot now well and truly entrenched in the organisation's apex structures, it would be understandable if good corporate citizens opted to give the treasurer-general's office a wide berth.
A regressive about turn?
Mashatile spoke to the with obvious authority. But is this regressive about-turn on the PPFA shared by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC? Ordinarily, it would be unthinkable that a decision of this gravity would be taken without NEC approval. But then, as singer-songwriter Bob Dylan says, "the times they are a-changin'." Member of the ANC's top six officials though he is, Mashatile is communicating a far-reaching and particularly egregious - from the ANC's stated position on a matter that goes to the heart of multiparty democracy. What is being proposed here is a repudiation of the role the ANC played in securing the enactment of this legislation barely two years ago.
In trying to make his case, Mashatile at times turns logic on its head. He wants increased government funding for political parties not because of the ANC's commitment to multiparty democracy, but rather, private companies are showing "a great reluctance to fund" political parties. We should turn to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni for help:
"A democracy that cannot support itself runs the risk of being captured by outside donors." Well, Mr Mboweni, domestic donors, too, based on the South African experience. Opaque donations operate on the principle of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours".
There is no doubt that there are many altruistic donors, especially for charities, who insist on anonymity because they eschew the glare of publicity. In political fundraising, these would be rare exceptions. Politicians, acting in a personal or party interest, have amazing abilities to show gratitude to "helpful" businesspeople.
Mashatile's claim that his party doesn't scrutinise donors is very worrisome. It is this relaxed attitude, hopefully nothing worse, that would explain the flow of funds to ANC coffers, and favours and funds to its leading officers from the likes of Edwin Sodi. This is the man who is facing corruption charges for the looting of some R220-million that should have been used to remove asbestos, a health hazard, from poor people's houses. The same would go for "donations" from Bosasa, the Guptas and many others, as yet unexposed. The ANC would do well to bear in mind what the Romans of old used to say, namely, that if you lie with dogs, you get up with fleas. (Magam'endoda, our fine dog, would take strong exception to this, for not a single flea has ever lodged on his glistening pelt.)
Valli Moosa, who served as minister of constitutional development during the formative years of our democracy and has mustered respectable knowledge in matters pertaining to constitutional democracy, recently wrote:
"Our near-perfect Constitution had one serious shortcoming: it did not regulate the funding of political parties. In particular, it did not explicitly prohibit the practice of political parties keeping their sources of funding secret. It also placed no limitation on who a party may accept money from and in what amounts."
Indeed, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that allows political party funding by foreign interests. This has to be stopped. Much has been written about foreign influences grossly interfering in elections in many countries, including the most powerful on Earth. Digital manipulation, targeted investments, cash and other means are used to subtly influence voting.
When the PPFA was introduced, it was widely welcomed by South Africans who believed it would make parties more accountable to the electorate. For the sake of our country, the ANC and Mashatile must be persuaded not to proceed with plans to scuttle good legislation for short-term gainsIn its present form, the Political Party Funding Act needs strengthening to make sure that its systems are foolproof. The mandate of the act must be extended to cover municipalities.
Its ambit must be broadened to include intra-party funding as well. Who funds which leaders and for what purpose? During leadership contests, what informs these generous funders' choices? The public is entitled to know about this, especially when the successful contestants end up in senior government positions.