"State capture starts with political party capture," Section 27's Mark Heywood said at a recent briefing in Johannesburg.
He was speaking under the banner of SaveSA, which released a list of demands for a socially just South Africa. Included in this list is a call for amendments to existing legislation to force political parties to reveal their donors.
This is not the first time that civil society has questioned where the money that fills the pockets of political parties comes from. But it is a matter that needs to be revisited, urgently, given the current political climate.
The Institute for Democracy in South Africa was the first organisation to approach the courts on this matter. In 2005, the High Court in Cape Town dismissed Idasa's application to compel parties to disclose their funders under existing legislation.
Judge BM Griesel agreed with the responding parties that the matter of donor disclosure is a complex issue that would best be dealt with by Parliament. "It is precisely because of these complexities that the court is, in my view, ill equipped – compared with the legislature – to perform the task that the applicants are seeking to impose upon it," reads the judgement.
Griesel however adds: "The above-mentioned conclusion does not mean that political parties should not, as a matter of principle, be compelled to disclose details of private donations made to their coffers."
More recently, the My Vote Counts campaign has embarked on a similar journey warning against a 'one rand one vote' principle, where the interests of funders are prioritised over voters.
More Questions Than Money
The secrecy behind party funding raises a myriad of questions.
Are funders prioritised for tenders in the ANC's case, or the DA's case in Cape Town or other metros it won in the recent local elections?
How would African National Congress voters respond if it came to light that the party is largely funded by the same 'white monopoly capitalists' blamed for growing inequality. Workers, represented by alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions, and the South African Communist Party for that matter, will most likely be highly upset should it come to light that the private institutions exploiting their members are paying for the black, green and yellow t-shirts.
This holds true for the other political parties as well. The Economic Freedom Fighters' socialist drive will hold little water, if any, if that very campaign is paid for by capitalist institutions, either local or foreign. How much would the DA resonate with ethical supporters if they were funded by the tobacco industry, or private arms manufacturers?
Given the lack of information, we are left to guess where the money comes from for political rallies, food parcels, and merchandise. But it is not a complete shot in the dark.
It would hardly be a surprise to learn that the Guptas have a hand in financing the ANC's campaigns or, as Heywood suggested, the Russian state or Russian business, given the claims around the nuclear build programme. Surprise visits to Taiwan and Israel by DA leaders have also been considered a dead give-away. Julius Malema can hardly justify a working visit to Britain which includes no form of financial or, at the very least, political support.
Disclosure however could reveal much in terms of political parties' priorities. Why certain policies are pushed, demographics prioritised or, in the case of the governing party, some ministers are dismissed and others appointed.
For what other reason would political parties withhold this kind of information other than the risk that it would carry severe political costs? It might therefore be up to parties such as the United Democratic Front, which has called for donor transparency, to lead by example. The ANC has made similar commitments to address the matter, but like much of its promises, have remained at just that.
But given that none of the major parties are willing to disclose their funders, it is highly unlikely that existing legislation will be amended should a new party take over.
This post was first published on the Salt & Pieter blog site. - blogs editor