Political parties in South Africa, like in many other parts of the world, are an integral part of the process of democratic pluralism.
Most political parties in South Africa are constituted as voluntary associations and make their own rules, usually contained in their constitutions and relevant codes of conduct. The piece of legislation that defines parameters for political parties is the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act 103 of 1997. It regulates State funding to parties represented in the National Assembly and in provincial ones. Funding is allocated on a proportional basis through the Represented Political Parties Fund, which is managed by the IEC. The parameters for use of the funds are loosely defined as follows, “for any purposes compatible with [the party’s] functioning as a political party in a modern democracy”. This may include shaping public opinion, encouraging participation in democratic life and support for political education.
Interestingly, section 5(3) of the Act is somewhat more specific in respect of what is expressly prohibited for use of public funds to political parties. These include the following:
- pay any direct or indirect remuneration or other benefit of any kind to any elected representative of the party or to any public servant at any level of government;
- finance or contribute directly or indirectly to any matter, cause, event or occasion if it contravenes any code of ethics binding on Members of Parliament or any provincial legislature;
- use the money directly or indirectly to start any business or acquire or maintain a right or financial interest in any business;
- use the money directly or indirectly to acquire or maintain a right or financial interest in any immovable property, unless if solely for ordinary party-political purposes;
- use the money for anything else that is incompatible with a political party’s functioning in a modern democracy.
State funding to political parties is reasonably covered as described above. The issue that has been long in the waiting is that of disclosure and declaration of private funding to political parties. Civil society organisations have for several years advocated and litigated, submitted PAIA requests and urged political parties to self-regulate, with little impact. The sector has collectively argued that transparency and openness is vital to developing a political culture in South Africa, and that making public the sources of income is key to mitigating influence-peddling, corruption and lobbying by private interests.
The President signed the long-awaited Political Party Funding Bill into law on 23 January 2019, notwithstanding the fact that it was on his desk since July 2018, after both houses passed the Bill. In brief, the law compels political parties to disclose all sources of funding; it prohibits the receipt of funds from foreign governments, foreign persons and entities, SOEs, organs of State and the National Lottery.
The Act imposes a cap on disclosure of funding above R100 000. The Act also makes provision for the establishment of two funds, to be managed by the IEC. These funds are the Represented Political Party Fund and the Multi-Party Democracy Fund. The former will regulate monies appropriated from Parliament, while the latter will regulate and oversee private sources of funding.
As election season hots up, it would appear to have been the appropriate time to effect the requirements around disclosure of party funding. Alas, this will have to wait until at least the local government elections in 2021 and the next national election in 2024, when the collective minds of the electorate are focused on the issue of money in politics. The reason for the delay in implementation of the Act is attributable to the requirement that it must have been enacted at least six months before an election.
In the light of this requirement, questions have been raised about the delay in the Presidency’s signing of the Bill into law. Sy Mamabolo, Chief Electoral Officer of the IEC, offered a more procedural response to the media as to the delay, “…in discussions with Parliament and Treasury, it was always envisaged that the Act would be implemented in a staggered process beginning April 1, 2019, in line with available funding and to allow for the development of capacity within the electoral commission to meets its obligations”.
The key question for discussion is that of whether the IEC is capable and capacitated to effect its ever-widening mandate to monitor political party donations, enforce regulations and distribute funds. This, while ensuring that free and fair elections are held every five years, and to oversee and run by-elections as they arise.
One need not cast the net too wide in South Africa to glean the negative effects of money on politics. The valiant efforts of investigative journalists have laid bare how political influence has been purchased by donors, who, like the Guptas and Watsons, asserted disproportionate influence on political parties and public officials. The nature of support was on done on a quid pro quobasis. Their purchasing of power has had a direct impact on the right of citizens to equal representation and participation in the democratic process. A skewed political playing field very rarely benefits citizens.
All the commissions currently hearing evidence, ranging from the Zondo Commission to Mokgoro and the Mpati Commission, have heard of shadowy practices and people who have sought to capture the State and subvert the Rule of Law by buying off key players in the governing party and supporting its election campaigns. Politics and politicians were for sale and hire, for booze, bags and bundles of cash. While the Commissions have opened a Pandora’s Box, full accountability, including criminal prosecution, is the next logical step.
The net effect of trillions of Rands lost to corrupt practices and a captured State and governing party has witnessed a country left bereft and unable to meet basic needs of citizens, especially the poorest. This in turn may manifest in citizen anger and dissatisfaction. It may result in voters shunning electoral politics or responding to brands of politics that are racially divisive and intolerant of a multiplicity of views and or positions that evoke the past to destroy the future. This does not bode well for the growth and replenishment of democracy in South Africa.
In a constitutional democracy founded on the principles of non-discrimination, equality, freedom and unity in diversity, it remains vital that a multi-party democracy is fed, and nourished, and political parties speak to different and even a multitude of aspirations of citizens.
At the heart of this project is to ensure that within the limitations of a closed list system of proportional representation, political parties too are bound by rules and procedures, not least in where and how they obtain their funding. The Political Party Funding Act is an important step in monitoring and overseeing receipt of funds from private sources in particular. However, the weightier issue of the impact of money on politics still has a long way to go in South Africa. The issue of political finance must remain an important concern for all South Africans, lest recent history repeats itself.