South Africa

South Africa

South Africa is one step closer to finding out where political parties get their money

It now looks virtually certain that South Africa’s future will be one in which political parties have to disclose their sources of funding – whether through an amendment to the Promotion of Access to Information Act ordered by the courts, or through the political party funding bill currently being drafted by the country’s legislators. In Parliament this week, the public is being given its last say on what that legislation should look like. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It’s has been a mixed year for South African politics, to say the least. But 2017 may also go down in history as the year in which the country finally got serious about making political parties tell the public where they get their money.

It’s been a frustrating quirk of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) that this legislation, intended to ensure greater transparency, has up to now excluded one particular type of information request. It has not been possible to use PAIA to obtain answers to one of the burning questions of our democracy: what donations do political parties receive, and from whom?

That’s now set to change, following a Western Cape High Court victory in September by lobby group My Vote Counts. The court ruled there that Parliament had 18 months to amend PAIA to allow for its use to obtain financial records from political parties.

At the same time, a parallel process is taking place in Parliament to draft a new bill to enforce routine reporting on political party funding without having to resort to PAIA applications. The Draft Political Party Funding Bill is currently being considered by a multiparty ad hoc committee with the final round of public consultations taking place this week.

Representing OUTA – the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse – Liz McDaid expressed a certain amount of happy surprise on Tuesday that the process of producing a bill has progressed relatively smoothly and swiftly.

I want to congratulate this committee,” McDaid said. “You’ve done it over a very short time.”

Given that South African political parties have historically been almost united in their opposition to opening their books to public scrutiny, McDaid’s sense of surprise was justified. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: in this case, the bill being signed into law. Thus far, however, there is every indication that the work of the ad hoc committee represents an increasingly rare victory for both multiparty co-operation and open governance.

That’s not to say that all the MPs on the committee are thrilled at the prospect of the legislation. ANC MP Donald Gumede warned darkly: “Sometimes we take Western ways to the detriment of South African ways.” He was suggesting that the new law could cause political donations to “evaporate”.

As it stands, the draft bill proposes that political parties will receive money from two funds, in addition to direct donations. The first is a Represented Political Party Fund, from which parties will be given funding from Parliament for political business. The second is a Multiparty Democracy Fund, to which private donors can give money anonymously – if they wish – to be distributed among parties based on their size and number of elected representatives.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) would be responsible for managing the funds and for reporting back to the public annually on the composition of the funds.

Private donors will still be able to give money directly to political parties, but all donations above a certain threshold will be reported to the public by the IEC – once annually and more frequently in an election year. There are certain restrictions: foreign governments can’t give money, and parties can’t accept money which they suspect results from the proceeds of crime. Private donations can also not be made to individual party members rather than to the party as a whole.

If a political party fails to submit its financial records to the IEC in the manner required, sanctions range from the suspension of money from the funds to the cancellation of the party’s registration.

That’s the gist of the proposed legislation, and this week Parliament is hearing final submissions from the public about ongoing concerns, loopholes or requested additions to the bill.

Tuesday’s hearings began in characteristically fiery spirit with a submission from Black Land First’s Lindsay Maasdorp, who called for an end to the funding of political parties from dubious entities such as the “Zionists” and Johann Rupert. Maasdorp wants to see the “de-commodification” of party politics, which in BLF’s view would entail scrapping the current deposit required by the IEC to contest an election. Instead, BLF contends that amassing a certain number of signatures should be enough to register a party before elections.

Unisa’s political science professor Dirk Kotzé was also concerned about fledgling parties which have not yet contested elections – though from a different angle. Kotzé suggested that the requirements of disclosing funding should also apply to political parties which have yet to participate in elections. In its current form, the bill only requires funding disclosure from parties registered with the IEC.

Committee chair Vincent Smith, an ANC MP, was of the view that this proposal was “unmanageable”, however.

Where I come from there’s probably a million people who think they can start a political party,” Smith remarked.

Another proposal which raised concerns about cost and implementation came from the South African Local Government Association’s Mirriam Lehlokoa, who wants local government to be able to benefit from the Multiparty Democracy Fund.

The issue of whether the IEC should indeed be responsible for managing the funds and reporting to the public proved to be a bone of contention.

From our side, we want to caution against using the IEC,” said Unisa’s Kotzé, warning that the use of the electoral commission had the potential to create conflict between the IEC and political parties.

OUTA’s McDaid agreed, pointing to a possible conflict of interests. “Centralising power in one institution to manage both elections and political party funding dynamics is bound to be contentious, given the fact that the chief electoral officer is chosen by a member of a political party – the President of the Republic,” OUTA stated in its submission.

A former chief electoral officer of the IEC was on hand on Tuesday, though wearing a different hat: Pansy Tlakula addressed the committee in her current capacity as South Africa’s Information Regulator.

Tlakula emphasised her belief that PAIA should be amended as soon as possible to allow for the disclosure of political party funding.

We don’t understand why PAIA can’t apply to political parties,” Tlakula said. “There’s nothing political parties want to hide, I’m sure…” This prompted some cynical chuckles from observers.

Tlakula went a step further, however, saying that all information should be obtainable from political parties via PAIA, and not just about funding. The Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder disagreed, saying that “election strategy should not be public knowledge” – but he suggested that it was a debate best left for another day.

AmaBhungane’s Karabo Rajuili arrived with a lengthy list of potentially worrisome loopholes in the legislation for the committee. Rajuili suggested that large anonymous donations should not be allowed to be made secretly to the Multiparty Democracy Fund as “we still see the risk of corruption being inherent”.

AmaBhungane also proposes that another form of donation which should have to be disclosed is that of “personal services volunteered” to political parties, such as the provision of free accounting, legal or PR services. Rajuili called for reports on donations to be made more frequently than once annually, and proposed that people should still have the right to apply for this information using PAIA outside of the reporting periods.

Despite these concerns, however, Rajuili stressed the significance of this moment in South Africa’s politics.

Adequate and timeous disclosure of information will allow the media to do their job better,” Rajuili said. “This represents the next historic step for our country.” DM

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