Maverick Citizen

OP-ED: POLITICAL PARTY FUNDING

Parties must be honest in their party funding declarations

(Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic and historic funding legislation, what can we expect from the upcoming local government elections? And are political parties being honest about their donors?

With less than a month to go before South Africans head to the polls to elect new district and metropolitan councils (that will represent them for the next five years), political parties are hard at work as they campaign for votes across the country. Contesting elections is a very expensive exercise. However, this year’s elections have been mired in controversy thanks in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA).

Political parties contend not only with registering themselves with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) but in the case of local government elections, also have to pay candidate registration fees. These fees range from R1,000 to R3,500 per ward or council. Party spending is not limited to registrations but is also concentrated on convincing the electorate to vote for them through costly election campaigns. This year’s local government elections are no different in that regard.

The concerns around voter access and party campaigning have been further exacerbated by new party funding legislation. The implementation of the PPFA on 1 April this year appears to have deeply affected the ability of political parties to source adequate funding.

PPFA disrupting funding for campaigning?

In the intervening weeks since the IEC made public the funding disclosures from political parties, much has been said about the effect that the PPFA has, or will have, on political party funding.

Mary Oppenheimer-Slack, the biggest donor to the Democratic Alliance in the first quarter, noted that the public nature of disclosures could scare off potential donors. However, in a political climate where we recognise that corruption at all levels of government is a problem, can we be put off from pursuing open and transparent politics simply for the sake of big donor anonymity?

In the first published report of funding disclosures, only three political parties made disclosures: the ANC, DA and ActionSA. This means that just three of the nearly 500 parties registered with the IEC claimed to have received a donation above R100,000 in the reporting period of 1 April to 30 June.

Since the PPFA was only implemented on 1 April it means that any money received before this period (but still this year) would not have to be declared. Given the cumulative nature of the R100,000 threshold amount it also seems likely that some political parties may have in fact received donations, but these were just below the threshold amount. This means that smaller donations from the same donor must be tallied (until it reaches the threshold amount) and therefore we may see more disclosures in the upcoming periods. 

It however remains concerning that in an election year only three registered parties have made disclosures. In 2016 it was noted that the ANC spent close to R1-billion on its elections campaign. If a political party is spending even a fraction of this amount, it is still a staggering sum. Even with some political parties complaining of a funding crisis, in part due to the PPFA, they have still managed to campaign. If, despite these concerns, election campaigns continue then we must ask: how are our political parties covering the cost of their campaigns and are they being truthful in the reporting thereof?

Impact of the regulation of private funding of parties on campaigning for local government elections

The PPFA makes it clear that it is not only cash donations that must be disclosed but also donations in kind. For example, this means that should a political party receive a donation of campaign sweaters, billboards, transport or anything else of this nature it must be reported in the same manner as cash donations.

Many political parties who did not disclose during the first disclosure period are now campaigning. We must remain cognisant of the financial implications of their election campaigns and if they have or have not disclosed. This will become especially important if in the next disclosure period we are seeing no disclosures for both cash and in-kind donations.

The 2019 general elections showed trends of political parties across the different provinces benefiting from open and anonymous in-kind donations. In-kind contributions were made for food for campaigners and venues for political meetings. However, political parties never disclosed the details of these donations. To achieve the goal of transparent politics it is crucial to monitor both cash and in-kind donations especially if in-kind donations are used surreptitiously to circumvent having to disclose cash donations. 

Political parties must ascribe the correct monetary value to their donations in kind when disclosing. Just as with cash donations, should this be over the threshold amount, it must be disclosed. If it is less than the threshold, all donations from that donor must be recorded and tallied. Crucially this means that even if a political party says it does not receive direct cash donations it could still very well be receiving financial support in the form of donations in kind. When trying to win over the electorate and get votes, these donations can prove vital to the execution of a well-run election campaign.

Other factors affecting campaign funding for local government elections

The 2021 local government elections are taking place in the context of a plethora of challenges like the municipal crisis.

Also, earlier this year, there was a possibility of the postponement of the elections due to the impact of Covid-19 on the electoral process. This and the subsequent litigation around the postponement means that political parties are not fully ready to start campaigning, as many hoped that the elections would be postponed. This has negatively affected campaign planning and securing campaigning resources. Many political parties’ manifestos are only now being launched, which is a lot later than usual. Be that as it may, political parties were supposed to have raised funds knowing that it was a possibility that elections would go ahead.

Covid-19 restrictions have been a concern for political parties wanting to campaign, especially for those wanting to conduct door-to-door campaigns. The pandemic has not provided a level playing field. Only political parties that have access to technology and innovation have been able to reach out to voters using alternative methods, namely digital media. Smaller parties have not been able to tap into this method of campaigning because of the lack of resources to do so. Thus, Covid-19 has affected how political parties communicate with voters and smaller parties are disadvantaged.

Though a very important element of a democracy, electioneering can be very costly. Political parties need resources to inform the electorate about issues relevant to local government, encourage debate and motivate voters to cast their vote in the elections. Covid-19 has had an impact on political activity and the electoral process. However, the PPFA should not hamper fundraising for something as important as an election. Yes, with the current pandemic, there are campaigning challenges but in terms of funding said campaigns, it should be at the top of a party’s fundraising list going into an election year. 

The degree to which the PPFA has truly affected political party financing is still too early to call, however, it has already begun to create a system where political parties must be honest in how they are being funded. In an election year, when votes are needed, we must be aware of how our political parties are campaigning and hold them to account for both their promises and the money spent to get them into office. DM/MC

Letlhogonolo Letshele, Electoral Systems Researcher, holds an MA in Politics and International Relations from the University of Johannesburg.

Robyn Pasensie, Political Funding Researcher, holds a BA in International Relations, BAdmin Hons (Cum Laude) and is a Masters candidate in political science at the University of the Western Cape.

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