On Saturday evening, Democratic Alliance (DA) CEO Jonathan Moakes made a rare public statement about its funding, naming Sahara Computers executive Stephan Nel as the person who had donated money to the party. This appeared to be the culmination of a week of political pressure on the party, and particularly leader Helen Zille, following the claim in The New Age newspaper that she had received money from its owners, the Gupta family.
This has been a rare moment for the DA; it has been the organisation under pressure instead of the African National Congress (ANC). It may have been an uncomfortable experience for a party whose role in opposition is primarily to keep the ruling party on the back foot. But the DA is likely to have learnt several lessons from the saga.
The first sign that Zille was in political difficulties was her statement indicating that the money came from an "executive " in the Gupta group of companies, in his "personal capacity”. Previously, she had refused to name him, citing the DA’s policy of not identifying its donors. But as the pressure continued, the party named him.
Zille has claimed several times she had received this money "long before the Guptas became controversial" for their links with President Jacob Zuma.
She also stressed that once the family started to make headlines, she refused to take more money from Nel, even though he was not a member of the family.
It appears that at the heart of this imbroglio lies the age-old tension over party funding. It is a problem that afflicts both the DA and the ANC. However, the DA may believe it has a harder time of it, in that it is in opposition and is generally a smaller operation. It is also a party that tends to use the media during elections, while the ANC tends to mobilise its members across the country within their communities. As a result, it is possible that Zille took the first donation at a time when the party really needed the money. It may also have appeared — considering that this was back in 2009 — that there was very little chance of it ever attracting controversy.
The party is likely to be more careful in future. However, it would be an uncomfortable situation for any organisation to appeal for money and then only accept it after running background checks on the donors.
There are other lessons from this incident. Zille’s claim that The New Age was created to further the agenda of the ANC in general and Zuma in particular may be strengthened by its decision to run several front-page stories attacking her personally. It has also raised questions about the paper, and, in particular, why the SABC took the decision to broadcast its business breakfasts with political leaders.
Both the SABC and the ANC have said the deal benefits the broadcaster, as the paper can attract high-profile guests. But this poses the question of how the SABC, as easily the biggest and most important media organisation in South Africa, is unable to get those guests without the help of a relatively new newspaper.
But it does appear that the DA has been damaged by these claims. This issue is likely to be part of the ANC’s response to any claims the DA makes about its funding or its leaders’ activities.
This column appeared in The Business Day.