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Where money talks, politics walks: The case for taking...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Where money talks, politics walks: The case for taking private money out of party funding

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Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan. During the 1990s, he was Chair in Philosophy at the then University of Natal, Durban. A frequent commentator on South Africa, he splits his time between Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Cape Town. His most recent book is The Political Power of Visual Art.

All democracies are works in progress, rebuilding their boats while at sea. The time is now for both South Africa and the US to seek radical change in the political funding process. In the US, a winner is one who is on a roll (bankroll). Fortunately, South Africa has a head start on this, having now begun to implement the Political Party Funding Act of January 2019.

The recent absenting of Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkize raises questions about democratic governance that go far beyond issues of corruption. The R2-million paid to Digital Vibes for Mkize’s appearance on the SABC’s news programmes seems to have been largely raised to fund the ANC, with a relatively small fraction of the money diverted to himself and his family. 

The idea that a minister of government should be paid to appear on an organ of the state (the SABC) is of course outrageous. But it points to a political funding model that is flawed to the point where it is almost certain to require such corruption. That is, that political parties must raise their own cash.

It is well known that the ANC is out of money and must seek ways to pay its operating costs. Under such circumstances there are only three possibilities: small donations by a broad constituency, donations on a massive scale by individual or corporate donors, or corrupt diversion of funds. South Africa lacks a broad population with money to donate, and also lacks powerhouse donors, so is left only with the third alternative.

It is a bad alternative. But so are the first two.

Let me share with you the “example” of my alma mater, the US. 

I am a person who splits his time between America and South Africa and has witnessed close-hand how the US funding model has run roughshod over the democratic politics of representation in the past 30 years. At its best the US relies on the first alternative – modest donation by a broad swathe of the population. This model works well for the funding of parastatal entities such as National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service. But it works at best sporadically when it comes to funding political candidates, given the likelihood that party politics will anyway end up marginalising them (look at what happened to Bernie Sanders, for example).

As a norm, US politics rely on the second funding alternative. Big donors sponsor and even create political candidates, as the Koch brothers did with Scott Walker, who, thanks to a barrage of political adverts in all media outlets of dubious truth value, all negative, was propelled into office as governor of Wisconsin. Wisconsin had formerly been a solid democratic union, working-class state, but in our post-industrial world of worker uncertainty that state went rogue right wing with Walker at the helm. What Walker did to his state from 2011 to 2019 – stripping universities of funding, rolling back workers’ rights, greasing the palms of those who wanted bigger and more spectacular guns – became a model for Trump’s aggressive, “populist” America.

As with all things in America, eventually the funding of political candidates turned into an expanding market, into which major investment of capital now leads to significant capital gains for the investor: tax write-offs for real estate, easing of rules allowing corporations to relocate elsewhere for tax advantage, whittling away of regulation protecting workers and populations from environmental waste, elimination of safety oversight, etc. All of which contributes to spiralling inequality and further populist rage.

American elections are now often decided by who puts the most money into a media blitz on TV, talk radio and the internet. As the conversation of democracy, or what is often called “the public sphere”, is increasingly marginalised by this tactic, genuine debate and the articulation of political ideas – which prove unsuitable to these tactics – reduces to sound bite and 30-second accusation without evidence. This flattens the conversation of democracy into an accumulation of memes, branding images and negative tropes.

This gradual erasure of real conversation has in turn been a central catalyst for the “post-truth society”, since candidates win on the basis of how many negative ads they can roll out with consistency and intensity. And so John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War hero, long-time member of the US Senate and presidential candidate for the Democratic Party opposing George Bush Junior, or “baby Bush”, in 2004, was in part vanquished because of “swift-boat advertising”, which portrayed his war record as fabricated. These ads, hammering away at network television, gradually take on subliminal force, as in: say it often enough and it becomes true.  

Federal caps on third-party campaign spending were the next to come under attack as competition between big donors required an influx of more and more cash on their parts to vanquish competitors. And so the Citizens United case, heard before the US Supreme Court in 2010, led to a big victory for the big donor. This was because the court agreed with the argument that a cap is unconstitutional, deciding this on the grounds that political donation qualifies as freedom of speech and is therefore protected under First Amendment rights.

This wild inflation of First Amendment rights opened the door to a literalisation of the phrase “money talks”. Since money talks, and talk is protected, there can no more be a cap on the amount of money donated than on the amount of speech a person may use.

Political donation, now enshrined as a First Amendment liberty, is now justified in all cases that speech is justified. And in America the only constraints on freedom of speech are 1) if it represents a direct threat or 2) an incitement to violence.

America finally got to the point where the network news would report which candidate had outspent the other week by week, as if this qualified the “winner” for office. A winner is one who is on a roll (bankroll).

The US has a genius for the extension of market principles into ever new domains of life. Politics has become the most recent victim of this market expansion. South Africa should therefore hardly look to replace its also bankrupt political funding system with the big-shouldered alternative of the US.

All democracies are works in progress, rebuilding their boats while at sea. The time is now for both countries to seek radical change in the political funding process.

Fortunately South Africa has a head start on this: The Political Party Funding Act of January 2019, which regulates private contributions to political parties. Valli Moosa, in a Daily Maverick op-ed on 28 September 2020, hailed this act as of lasting importance, also pointing out more acerbically that it has yet to be adequately deployed. But as he rightly says, the issue is also crucially state funding for political parties, which would level the playing field and at least reduce the need for Mkhize-style corruption. It is something to pursue, if South Africa does not aspire to the American road, paved as it is with gold and diamonds. DM/MC

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