Money and democracy, the bonds that tie

By Stephen Grootes 19 November 2018
ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC National Elective Conference, December 2017. Photo: Leila Dougan

The nexus of money, power and politics is something that most democracies grapple with in different ways. It is obvious that the more money you have in politics, the greater are the chances of your victory in whichever battle you are currently fighting. Sometimes, the difference in resources can appear almost insurmountable. So, the revelation that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign for ANC presidency received a donation of R500,000 from Bosasa is welcome fodder for his opponents, whether they be in the EFF, the DA or within the ANC itself, even if there could well be limits to how useful this is to them.

It is important to consider what limits there are to whether regulation can stop money from achieving political results.

The company that gave Ramaphosa’s campaign the money, Bosasa, is no stranger to controversy. It has previously given money to ANC MP Vincent Smith, and been at the centre of various claims of corruption. It is obvious that a company that receives government contracts would have a financial interest in the outcome of an ANC leadership election. It is also no surprise that a company such as this would have such an interest in the ANC’s internal battles. It is entirely possible that in fact, this company, or perhaps others, gave money to both sides in that contest – they would want to make sure that they are on the right side of whoever won.

This leads to a question that could be much more illuminating of this issue than many others: if Ramaphosa’s campaign had a trust account such as this, did his opponent’s campaign? And the obvious answer must be that there was a system of funding the campaign of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. It may be that this could limit the ability of Ramaphosa’s ANC critics from making much headway. All his camp would need to do is to point this out, or even just ask the question in public.

It is also possible that the answer lies in the suspicion that it was not necessarily just corporate money that was used for the Dlamini Zuma campaign, but actually some government funds were used. Already, since Nasrec, there was speculation that a particular Social Security Agency project involving hastily approved amounts of cash just before the ANC conference. Current ANC Elections head, Fikile Mbalula, was reportedly involved in a bid to buy a cellphone signal grabber (a device that “grabs” cellphone signals and allows the user to tap them) just before the conference, to the tune of R50-million.

It is also important to be absolutely clear what an ANC elective conference really is a multibillion-dollar patronage election in which the final outcome is by secret ballot. Of course there’s money involved. Could it really be that people with resources and a future resting on the outcome were not involved? Extraordinary unlikely.

In the real world of ANC politics then, this amount, and this “revelation”, is probably small-fry. And for a population of voters almost inured to scandal after the Zuma era (and other events) it unlikely to come as a shock. There is also an increasing body of evidence that the Nasrec conference was just one of many where this happens, considering how crucial the leadership of the ANC is to the rest of the country.

While there will be those who claim that Ramaphosa is somehow the head of the party (and thus the country) through illegitimate means, politically that may simply not matter. The situation in the ANC still appears to suggest that removing Ramaphosa now has the potential to set in chain events that would end the ANC’s grip on power. The main reason for this is the same as it has been since Nasrec itself: there is no obvious person to take over from him. Deputy President David Mabuza is merely tolerated by one faction, and is accused of betraying the other, while no other person appears able to marshal the support of enough elements in the party to take over.

Meanwhile, this issue is likely to focus more attention on the need for the proper regulation of political party funding. However, it is not clear whether the current party funding bill would actually stop this kind of “donation” from taking place. While it does contain a clause that “no person or entity may deliver a donation to a member of a political party other than for party political purposes” it may not apply to the kind of trust account that was used here.

However, even if the Bill was changed (it is, ironically, currently on Ramaphosa’s desk awaiting a simple signature) it probably would not stop donations of this kind. The fact is, accounting for the expenses in a situation like this could be impossible. There are likely to have been cash donations from ordinary ANC members at branch meetings, and bank transfers from other bodies. This means that providing a full and accurate picture is an extraordinarily difficult task.

Other countries, with much more experience in this field, have also grappled with this problem, and found few solutions to it. In the US, the Supreme Court ruled that it is legally wrong to ban independent organisations from funding advertising (or political speech) that benefits certain candidates. This effectively appears to mean that “money is speech”, and obviously gives a certain benefit to the rich.

It appears unlikely, then, that our democracy is going to come up with answers to the question. However, there are some things that can be done. Ramaphosa signing the current Political Party Funding Bill would be a good start, in that it could start to level the inter-party playing field, at least a little bit. He could also come clean on exactly where all of the money used by his campaign came from (at least as far as his campaign is able to ascertain). And then demand that the other side come clean on theirs. That at least would have the benefit of transparency, causing those considering making similar donations in the future think again.

However, in the end, money is power. It is true in life, and in politics. And in a country with our levels of economic inequality, things are not likely to change that easily, or quickly. DM


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