The debacle over the ANC's "Paid Twitter" campaign could affect the way future laws on political party funding are drafted, in order to identify hidden funding which benefits a party but doesn't go directly through it.
The ANC has been criticised after allegations emerged in papers in a civil claim in the Johannesburg High Court, first reported by AmaBhungane on News24 on January 24, that the party had set up a War Room before the 2016 local government elections, which tried to run a covert campaign which included "Paid Twitter" and fake posters aimed at discrediting political opponents.
This campaign was allegedly budgeted at R50-million. It was exposed by PR expert Sihle Bolani, who brought a claim for R2.2-million against the ANC, saying it hadn't paid her. The ANC has distanced itself from the matter, denying that any such campaign existed, and distancing itself from those implicated including ANC general manager Ignatius Jacobs and ANC activist Shaka Sisulu.
"The thing that really stood out for us is the part around this whole development that says they didn't want there to be any link between the people working in the War Room and the ANC directly. They would source the funds and payment would be made directly but not through the ANC," said Janine Ogle, the national coordinator for My Vote Counts (MVC).
MVC is a civil society organisation which campaigns for accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness of elections and politics. Last year it brought legal action in the Western Cape High Court to force transparency in party funding.
"What this means is that when legislation for political party funding is drafted in South Africa, these kinds of funding avenues will have to be addressed in that legislation," Ogle told the Huffington Post South Africa. She said the MVC had so far just asked parties to say publicly who gave them funding. "But what this new development means is that that will not give us a clear picture."
The matter was again in the weekend newspapers.
AmaBhungane reported in City Press on Sunday that Bolani had recorded her meetings with the ANC in November when the "War Room", the covert campaign and the failed attempt to raise the R50-million budget were discussed with Jacobs.
"I, personally, was trained in propaganda, deception, subterfuge, political warfare, spy works — I know what must be done... If I had the resources, we [would] be way ahead now," Jacobs told Bolani in one meeting, according to AmaBhungane, and he also referred to the need to counter a media discourse which was "run by white capital".
The Sunday Times reported that the ANC has told Jacobs to resign or be fired, as the party tried to distance itself from the scandal. Jacobs couldn't be contacted for comment.
MVC has watched the matter closely.
"It raised a flag for us in terms of political party funding and what the maneuverings are by political parties. But it also has very grave implications for the public trust in our political and electoral systems and that, for me, is really, really scary," said Ogle.
She pointed out that technically the ANC hadn't actually needed to disguise the funding.
"It's interesting that they're doing this now when there is no requirement for transparency. Even if the money did come directly from the ANC, who would know? Because the political parties don't tell us who gives them money or where their money goes," said Ogle. It's possible that those involved were trying to hide the money trail from others within the ANC, or that they were hoping to avoid the sort of public leak that happened in the court case.
She said the "Paid Twitter" allegations were a concern for democracy.
"The 'Paid Twitter' thing — it speaks to electoral integrity, it speaks to public trust in our electoral and political systems, and what it means is that 'Paid Twitter' or 'Paid Facebook' or whatever, if this becomes the norm, the public then does not know what to believe. They don't know what information out there is true and what isn't, and then that erodes trust in our political systems and, if there are elections, in our electoral system," said Ogle.
The MVC campaign to get access to funding details continues this year and hopes to extend it beyond getting the parties to confirm sources of private funds. The organisation also wants corporates to be transparent with their funding of political parties. And it might consider trying to find out how the parties spend their funds. There's some information available on the public funding for parties, which runs through the Electoral Commission, but nothing on the private funding to parties.
"We don't know anything about the private funding side," said Ogle.
MVC has brought court action against about 18 respondents -- all the parties represented in the National Assembly, Parliament and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development -- aimed at getting details of political party funding. While that action spent much of last year bogged down in waiting for responses, MVC is now hoping for a court date.
The deadline for official notice of opposition is Tuesday, said Ogle, and only the department and the Democratic Alliance (DA) have indicated they will oppose the matter.
"The final, final deadline is the end of this month. We've written to them to say we can't go beyond this, we've given you several extensions, end of January is the final deadline and then we request a date at the court," said Ogle. MVC will ask for the court date from Wednesday.
She said some political parties indicated they agreed, in principle, that the funding information should be available but they wouldn't provide it unless all the others did too. The EFF supported transparency but felt that parties should only be funded from the public purse and membership fees, with no private funding at all, she said.
"The ANC hasn't responded, I don't know why they didn't."