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Who’s who in the funding zoo? Dismantling the cages of political party financing

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Themba Dlamini is a chartered accountant, speaker, author and founder of Melanation Media, with a passion for dismantling toxic masculinity, systemic racism and fatherlessness through thought-provoking stories which challenge these narratives.

The sooner we have complete transparency on political party funding the better. Until then we maintain a climate where corruption and patronage flourish.

“Vroom Vroooom!!” Hope mimicked a car engine, frantically spinning the steering wheel left to right. Instead of the usual exhaust fumes synonymous with the constipated roads of Jozi, my 17-month-old daughter drove a purple hippo lookalike cart in Joburg Zoo as she relished the animals and spring winds that swept through her long black curly hair wafting the sweet smell of zoo-doo and salty junk food. In her mind she was in charge and in control, hands clasped to the wheel. Using the steering rod at the back of the cart, I indulged her illusion of control by turning to every direction she desired to go. Her brain buzzed with giddiness and her eyes bulged with excitement.

Soon it was time to go home. She protested. The giddiness of a few hours ago plunged like a lead balloon when she, in the end, grasped that she was not in control of anything – I was. The happy sounds of moments before were replaced by tears, yelling and flailing as I ignored her protests and plucked her out of the cart.

I noticed that while Hope’s mood had changed, the animals still had their sombre stares, surviving in cold cages, awaiting their daily food rations from the zookeepers.  

Reflecting on this moment is like reflecting on our democracy.

The word democracy originates from two Greek words, demos meaning citizen and kratos meaning power, so if it is meant to reflect a government system where people are in control, it begs the question of whether in democratic South Africa we are in control or, like Hope, we are under the illusion of control.

In 1994 it was probably age-appropriate for us as a young democracy to be under the illusion of control. We were collectively intoxicated by giddiness as the sun of hope and peace shone through the storm clouds of an impending civil war. The sweet smell of change blew across the hilly plains of our land. We were so intoxicated by the mind-numbing Mandela Magic swirled together with the victories of the 1995 World Cup by the Springboks and Bafana Bafana’s 1996 Afcon, we may as well have passed out altogether. With so much euphoria, who would want to think about and engage on boring topics like corruption, and the chink in our Constitution’s armour, as Vali Moosa puts it, of secret political funding that lends itself to State Capture when we were the dancing darlings of the world drumming the beat of the Madiba jive?

Two decades later, the zen and zeds of national inertia were ended by Zuma and co, resulting in a surge of protest and a general sense of dissatisfaction – and like Hope, we have realised that “we the people” are not in control. Our politicians are also not in control, or are they? How can they be? Many are passed out on the gravy train of the politics of pillage. It would seem that both citizens and politicians are like caged zoo animals at the mercy of the zookeepers – the funders.

At each election year, e-toll hearing or public matter hearing, and so on, we frantically spin the steering wheel, making engine sounds, but the reality is that the wheel is detached from governance and is instead attached to political funders.

There is a reason the steering rod of the zoo cart is at the back where Hope could not see it. There is a reason the current funders of political parties, as Paul Mashatile puts it, will run for the hills if their funding was to be sanitised of secrecy and disclosed to the sunshine of democratic accountability.

There is a lame, and quite frankly, fake, concern by the Democratic Alliance and others that if political funders of non-governing parties nationally, provincially and locally were to be disclosed they may lose out on potential lucrative state contracts in revenge shunning.

First, if the government really wanted to know it could easily source that information anyway. Second, if the proponents of this concern are genuine then, one, they unwittingly admit the very real problem that government contracts are awarded in lieu of patronage to people and parties in charge, and two, they affirm that secrecy is a defence against both political and public scrutiny.

If we don’t know who funds our politicians we must agree that we are married to corruption till democratic death us do part. The unholy trinity of power, money and secrecy is responsible for corruption and, in its most severe form, State Capture working to undermine the will of the people.

Furthermore, it is a feeble argument which says that instead of sanitising the political waters through transparency, buy swimming suits and continue swimming in the toxicity and if you value integrity and are unwilling to swim in muddy waters then stay out of politics.

A large contributor to the scars of our past is that voting was limited to a few. Secret political funding is taking us back there. In place of colonial conquest, economic muscle is now wresting power from the people.

You might argue that who funds who is irrelevant – after all, it is the people who cast the final ballot. However, to fully appreciate this, you must understand that voting is a two-stage process – nomination and voting.

William M Tweed, widely known as “Boss” Tweed, was a 19th-century American politician and philosopher who was the third-largest landowner in New York and a hugely influential figure in America’s oppressive politics of exclusion. He once said: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.”

Tweed understood that those who decided who was nominated called the shots. So even if 99.9% of the people vote, they are like Hope spinning a disconnected wheel while a handful of nominators do the driving using the steering rod of influence. Politicians who want to run for elections would need to find favour from the nominators because, in real terms, what voters think counts for naught if you can’t make it past nomination.

Tweed’s political philosophy swept across the globe and influenced global politics and I suspect also influenced the apartheid government’s philosophy.  

From the iron-fisted “white men only” Parliament during the 1970s, the apartheid government, in a show of phoney political emancipation, granted Bantustans “independence” and allowed elections in the “Homelands”. However, here was the “Tweed” catch: Black South Africans were offered collaborator candidates who were chosen by none other than the white South African government. This ensured that all forms of government were responsive only to white South Africa.

Fast forward to our time. As things stand, the pursuit of political funding is the most important race before actual elections. We are building a democracy that is potentially responsive only to funders.

Upon a closer look at the CR17 funding saga, our president was nominated by funders and so was his competitor, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. This stabbing of the soul of our democracy was made worse by wads of cash changing hands as ANC conference delegates allegedly sold their votes in Nasrec to the highest bidder.

I indulged Hope’s illusion of control, delighted in it even, until it clashed with my interest in needing to leave. Despite her frantic wheel spinning, flailing arms and yelling, there was nothing she could do. I was in control. When we protest, we frantically spin the wheel and flail our fists in frustration, not realising that we are not in control – the funders are. As evidenced by State Capture, the Guptas, Bosasa and other private interests wield more power than the people.

Each election year the mood of funders changes, depending on whether their horse won or lost, while our people, like zoo animals, continue to wear their sombre stares, trapped in cages of inequality and poverty.

That is why, even as we await the Constitutional Court ruling on the disclosure of the CR17 funding and despite the Public Protector’s farting and fumbling on her handling of the law, the fact remains that South Africans should be concerned about the CR17 funder’s interests because to ignore it in light of the current State Capture is not only naïve, but immoral. Secrecy is not democracy — demo-crazy perhaps.

The only solution to this problem is legislated transparency for political funding and for us to get behind Paul Mashatile’s call to take the bitter detoxification pill of letting the government increase state political funding if we South Africans want to take back the wheel of our democracy.

Like the zoo animals, our politicians have learnt not to bite the hand that feeds them. “Always lean to the green” is the advice given to politicians, meaning that when voter and funder interests collide you should always take the side of where the money (green dollars) is coming from. Judging by the testimony at the Zondo Commission it would seem our politicians take this advice seriously and maybe if the money is coming from the people, control may be ours.  

If we don’t know who funds our politicians we must agree that we are married to corruption till democratic death us do part. The unholy trinity of power, money and secrecy is responsible for corruption and, in its most severe form, State Capture working to undermine the will of the people.

We must demand accountability and put pressure on the president to give the Independent Electoral Commission the implementation date of the now-stalled Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) 6 of 2018, which does away with secrecy.

Otherwise, instead of going to the zoo for entertainment, we might as well vote. DM

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  • 100%! To understand levels of corruption in SA, we have to try and disentangle the political funding from self-enrichment and it’s very difficult. The problem is particularly acute within the ANC given that it’s the party in power – an entry pass to government is more expensive than mere entry to Parliament. But all the other parties need to disclose their funding too. #RisePPFA ! Glad though to learn that the wheels have not yet come off Joburg Zoo’s hippo car!

  • I concur. I do however wonder about the issue of what the author termed “revenge shunning”. Is there not also the rist that funders of political parties, particularly when they are commercial enterprises who do business with the public, may lose the loyalty of clients who share a different political ideology?

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