The soul of wit
18 September 2014 17:29 (South Africa)
South Africa

SA political fundraising: Messy, ugly, dirty, necessary

  • Marianne Thamm
  • South Africa
Marianne-on-SA-party-funding.jpg

Spare a thought for South Africa’s opposition parties who don’t have a leather biker’s jacket – marinated in the sweat of Jacob Zuma hot off the campaign trail – to auction off at R400,000 to raise funds. They can’t even dispense celestial blessings or promises to businesses that give generously so that they will prosper and thrive for all eternity. For opposition party leaders, fundraising is a dirty business, “the chemotherapy” of politics in the words of former DA leader, Tony Leon. A cash-strapped Agang and its leader, Mamphela Ramphele, learned it the hard way. By MARIANNE THAMM.

It didn’t take long for ANC national spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, to wake up a paranoid dog that had been sleeping for about 12 months, since Gwede Mantashe had first suggested in February 2013 that Agang might be “an American initiative aimed at channelling money to destabilise the South African government.”

Let us pause momentarily to reflect that South Africans should count ourselves lucky that the Gupta brothers are South African citizens (we presume), lest we are tempted to level the same charge at Mthembu, the ruling party and the numerous breakfasts we taxpayers have been bankrolling for the New Age. And the last time we checked, Mr Gaddafi never applied for an SA passport.

Mthembu’s comments followed apparent claims by Agang leader, Mamphela Ramphele, that the embarrassing on/off merger/union/partnership with the DA had had absolutely nothing to do with her personally and that the whole ghastly thing had happened simply because “a donor pushed the DA and Agang together”.

Employing his characteristic dramatic linguistic flair, Mthembu declared “what is most worrying for the ANC is the public admission by the leaders of the two parties that these foreign elements, using their financial resources as leverage, are able to dictate to them how they should structure their organisation, who should lead them, who they should fight with and of necessity, we must assume, what policies they should pursue.”

Hmm...

“Waterkloof Airforce Base, this is Air Gupta, just letting you know we’re coming in to land, ready or not…”

Back to the moment.

Earlier on Tuesday a mild Twitter timeline flare-up between Agang and Helen Zille attracted attention for all of five seconds. It went something like this.

@HelenZille. Just about every donor told Mamphela they would not fund Agang, with almost identical politics to the DA. Makes sense for united opposition.

@HelenZille And by the way, it was not only one donor that put pressure on Mamphela. It was EVERY donor. They want a united, strong opposition.

 

@AgangSA DA denies a report that a donor was behind the merger talks between us and DA. This contradicts @helenzille's tweeter (sic) rant. #ConfusedMuch

The AgangSA tweet was in reference to a story that had appeared that morning in the New Age in which DA Gauteng leader, Mmusi Maimane, was quoted as saying “There can be no donor that can force us to make such a decision… There never has been and there never will be.”

Zille picked up this thread later in the day in an interview with 702’s John Robbie, during which she pointed out that she would never have considered accepting money for merging.

“You know I would never do that; I don’t go in for those kind of deals,” she told Robbie.

Somehow I can’t imagine Helen Zille being dictated to… Really, give it a try.

Zille intimated that she knew who the “mystery” funder was but that Robbie should rather ask Mamphela Ramphele, a fair enough deflection of the question, as it was Ramphele who had alleged that this specific donor had shot-gunned her into the short-lived marriage in the first place.

Daily Maverick is on hot on the trail of this 'mystery' donor and hopes to confirm the identity soon.

Private party funding is the dirty underbelly of political life. That unglamorous side of it all that sometimes reduces dignified party leaders to performing seals or pole dancers for rich people.

A year ago, DA leader Tony Leon, a man with vast experience in the humiliations and triumphs of private political fundraising, penned a column that Ramphele should have read closely before embarking on her solo political career. Leon’s advice should be read, absorbed and internalised by anyone (apart from Julius Malema, of course) staring at the ceiling, dreaming of starting a political party and changing the world.

“As a former leader of the opposition I know what it takes, however, to sustain such a movement. Irritated though she (Ramphele) apparently is at me for offering gratuitous advice, I will bear the burden of her irritation by making one further suggestion. She would do well to visit her local cinema and view the epic Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln. His ultimately successful effort to enact the 13th amendment to the US constitution, the prohibition of slavery, was purchased at considerable cost. That story, about the high-mindedness and low skullduggery of 19th-century US politics, applies in our own political realm 150 years later. A heroic biography takes you only so far. You crucially need roots, a clear philosophy and, especially, a machine to deliver votes. You also have to undergo what I used to call the ‘chemotherapy of politics’, the dirty business of fundraising. Every opposition leader has visited the house of Gupta or worse.”

Ya, Helen, jy wil mos.

But that is the nature of private fundraising, one of the most important tasks of a leader. And it is a horrible, sickening job. You basically have to go out and beg for money. And while a party like the DA has many supporters with nice fat bank balances (as does the ANC) and who go out and attract or encourage others to cough up, the leader still has to do the occasional song and tap dance.

The reason why the DA is particularly successful at fundraising is not only that the party has the infrastructure, the roots, the machinery, the track record and a leader who could sell ice to Eskimos (I have witnessed Helen Zille doing this). It is also because the party has a vision and an idea (just like the ANC does) that it can sell to donors. And the key attraction for big DA donors is not only its values and policies and its “track record” where it governs, but also the notion that the survival of the party is essential for securing the establishment of a multi-party democracy in South Africa. Multi-party democracy is good for business, it is good for the market and anyone with money who wishes to invest in the country would like to secure a political ethos that is not hostile to all of the above.

Mamphela Ramphele has hung out with some of the world’s richest people and is no doubt supremely comfortable in their presence. She has also worked for the World Bank and is no stranger to the world of fundraising and its peculiar rituals.

But party political fundraising is a very different exercise. One that requires masses of market research because of the scattered and varied nature of potential local funders and backers, large and small.

Like for instance you don’t go to the wine industry in the middle of a recession and when someone is unbundling assets to ask for R5 million. Yet that, according to one insider, is exactly what Ramphele and her former fundraiser, Zorah Ebrahim, did.

Agang managed to secure an unconditional R1 million from a local banking executive, around R50,00o from a local wine producer while other potential donors offered services in kind, like a former banker, a shareholder in media company who offered advertising and research time. Several large and well-known retail businesses were approached but informed Agang fundraisers that they did not fund political parties. The party successfully raised some funds from local businessmen as well but clearly not nearly enough, as by December its cupboards were bare and some staff had gone unpaid.

Agang’s launch in June 2013 cost R5 million. Ramphele had originally budgeted R20 million and had tried hard to secure funding from “friends”.

She had also made several trips to London, one hosted by the SA Chamber of Commerce, to woo potential sponsors, many of them well-heeled expats.

But when you have no party structures to speak of, no regional or national organisation, no manifesto and no audited membership figures, your charisma, charm, intelligence and an international reputation is not enough to cut it.

Starting a political party and running an election campaign requires millions, even more than the R55 million Ramphele is said to be worth personally.

In politics it may be about the policy, the leader, the ideology, the values and all that stuff… But it is also about the money, just like everything else in life. Agang's leader has learnt the hardest possible way. DM

Photo: Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele holds a news conference in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 21 August 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

  • Marianne Thamm
  • South Africa


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