ISS Today
Home / ISS Today / SA municipal elections: who's paying the piper?
SA municipal elections: who's paying the piper?
2 August 2016

Tomorrow’s local government elections take place against the backdrop of what has been a turbulent few years for South Africa. Local government – the key driver of delivering services to citizens – has become mired in corruption and protest. An Afrobarometer survey shows 61% of citizens ‘disapprove or strongly disapprove’ of their local councillor’s performance.

In Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay, the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are gearing up for tough electoral battles. The latest polls show that the ANC might not secure a majority, which could spell a future of coalition governance. But it’s early days yet.

It comes as no surprise that ANC elections head, Nomvula Mokonyane, recently said that the party had spent R1 billion on this election. The enormity of that sum is hard to comprehend. Predictably, Mokonyane backtracked a few days later and ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize denied the amount.

If the ANC has indeed spent R1 billion, it would be staggering. Who donated such large sums of money, and what was it used for? A poster war, rallies, the ubiquitous T-shirt? Opposition parties have no doubt been pouring large sums of money into these elections as well. But no one really knows how much political parties have spent on campaigning because of a complete lack of transparency in the funding of political parties.

The courts have become far too great a player in South Africa’s political discourse
Tweet this

It’s an old chestnut with a long history in South Africa, and one that has not been dealt with at all. It’s the trite case of ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine.’ In addition, the benefits of incumbency make it hard to find out where the money comes from. If you are the party in government, it’s easy to host large-scale gatherings as ‘report back’ sessions in communities under the guise of just doing the work of government. Food parcels have been another familiar way in which the ANC has garnered support over successive elections.

This past week, the vexed issue of money and politics was again raised by advocacy group My Vote Counts. The group will once more take to the courts to challenge the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), in a bid to get parties to disclose their sources of funding.

The Institute for Democracy in Africa (Idasa) first took the matter to court in 2005, albeit unsuccessfully. Some fatigue on the issue may well have settled in – and another extended court battle is exactly what political parties will hope for. Needless to say, the courts have become far too great a player in South Africa’s political discourse. They have become the option of last resort when faced with recalcitrant politicians.

Examples of the toxic impact of money on the political process abound. The voices of the poor and marginalised are drowned out, while big money influences policy decisions.

What is really offered to those who donate? In Cape Town, for instance, the proposed Maiden’s Cove development has raised eyebrows given alleged close ties between the developer and DA mayor Patricia De Lille. ‘State capture’ has become the easy term for the entangled relationship between money, politics and the untrammelled conflicts of interest.

The voices of the poor are drowned out, while big money influences policy decisions
Tweet this

In January this year, the ANC’s Truman Prince brazenly wrote a letter on the municipal letterhead in which he called for ‘sympathetic’ construction companies to win tenders. He could not have been more clear about the aim when he wrote, ‘We [will] want to see construction companies sympathetic and having a relationship with the ANC to benefit, in order for these companies to inject funds into our election campaign process.’

To untangle this web will take some doing. It will mean a collective appreciation of the depth of the problem of money in politics; and also the creativity to forge a regulatory regime that is suited to our context, and which will take care of the worst excesses. Such a regime cannot be set up in isolation from other anti-corruption mechanisms; specifically, for instance, the work of Chief Procurement Officer, Kenneth Brown – who is attempting to centralise all tender processes in one database. Another intrinsically interlinked mechanism is the Public Administration Management Act, which regulates public servants’ involvement in companies that benefit from state tenders.

All political parties agree that transparency is a good thing, but they appear to lose their appetite for it when it comes to disclosing their sources of funding – especially during election time. Just as the ANC has displayed coyness about its sources of donations in the past, so the opposition DA has also been reticent to disclose its sources of funding. The lone parliamentary voice on this issue has been the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa, who has doggedly stuck to the call for party-funding transparency.

All parties say transparency is a good thing, until they have to disclose their funding sources
Tweet this

Logically the ruling party, with its overwhelming majority in Parliament, would have had to deal with this issue as it promised in 2005 after the Idasa court case. The ANC undertook to lead on the matter in Parliament, but that never happened – which is a sad indictment on the ANC.

In 2007, when the political winds of change were in the air, the ANC’s commitment to transparency in party funding was articulated in its Polokwane resolutions. Though Polokwane seems a lifetime away, the ANC has a mandate from its members to legislate on this issue. Yet there has been no movement on the matter since. The ANC Treasurer-General, Zweli Mkhize, has made useful suggestions, including an intermediate body through which to filter donations.

This ‘democracy fund’ might well remove some of the corruption in the system, but would need to be backed by legislation to regulate private funding to political parties. Yet Mkhize's suggestion could be the starting point for a more interesting and nuanced conversation about the impact of money on politics.

It is clear that political parties need money to operate, but being open about their funding sources is crucial if they, and in particular the ruling party, are serious about their commitment to transparency in tender processes, and about avoiding conflicts of interest. Without transparency in relation to political donations, there is no way of knowing whether tenders are being allocated in return for donations to the ANC – or any party, for instance.

Secrecy only breeds mistrust and an environment that is ripe for corruption
Tweet this

Regulation will not be the panacea for all ills. But in its absence, can citizens be certain that policy, environmental and development decisions are made in the best interests of the country? Or do these serve the narrow interests of the ruling party – be it the DA or the ANC?

Strong democracies require healthy political parties: in turn, political parties need resources to operate, to contest elections and to contribute to policy debate. It would likely be unrealistic to outlaw private donations. It is also clear that the more than R100 million a year of public money that political parties currently receive is not enough to finance the myriad activities they need to undertake. South Africa is a particularly challenging country within which to compete in an election given its sprawling landmass, large rural areas, 11 languages and low literacy rate.

Increasing public funding might only be part of the solution, because public money will never be enough and will not do away with political parties’ need to raise private money.

Who will take the bull by the horns? Unfortunately our Parliament and by implication the ANC, seems too fraught with division to fill the gap in South Africa’s anti-corruption apparatus unless the courts compel them to. And so we enter another election without much idea of who is funding the political parties we are asked to vote for.

The public has the right to know who is funding our political parties. Secrecy only breeds mistrust and an environment that is ripe for corruption. The time has come for a proper debate on this issue and for inaction to turn to action. If the political parties won’t act, citizens will have to demand that they do.

Judith February, Consultant, Governance Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

The longer, original version of this article was first published by Daily Maverick

Picture: ©Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS

Your comments
comments powered by Disqus