Judith February: Plugging the transparency gap

Whatever the early pundits are saying, one thing we know for certain is that the 2014 elections will be the most contested election since the dawn of democracy. Quite how much political parties will spend on campaigning, no-one knows given the complete lack of transparency as regards the funding of political parties. All political parties seem to agree that transparency is a good thing but appear to lose their appetite when it comes to disclosing their sources of funding. For as much as the ANC has displayed coyness about its sources of donations, likewise the opposition Democratic Alliance has been reticent to disclose its sources of funding.

So, the question remains, who will lead the way as regards closing this gap in South Africa's transparency regime? Logically, it would have to be the ruling party, with its overwhelming majority within Parliament. The ANC's commitment to transparency in relation to party-funding was articulated in its Polokwane resolutions. It therefore has a mandate from its members to legislate on this issue. Yet there has been little movement on the matter since Polokwane. Recently, ANC treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize, has made some useful suggestions regarding the establishment of a Democracy Fund through which donations can be filtered.

It is clear that political parties need money to operate. But, knowing where the money comes from is crucial if political parties, and in particular the ruling party, are serious about their stated commitments to transparency as regards tender processes and conflicts of interest. Without transparency in relation to political donations there can be no way of knowing whether tenders are being allocated because of what companies or individuals have donated to the ANC, for instance. What is the quid pro quo being offered to those who donate? In the absence of regulation, can we be certain that policy decisions which have been made or are going to be made will be in the best interests of the country or the narrow interests of the ruling party?

There is no doubt that strong democracies require healthy political parties. In turn, political parties require resources to sustain and operate a basic party structure, to contest elections and to contribute to policy debate. And it is probably unrealistic to outlaw private donations.

Moreover, it is clear that the R102 million per annum of public money that the political parties currently receive is not enough to finance the myriad activities political parties need to undertake. South Africa is a particularly challenging country within which to contest an election - a sprawling land mass, large rural areas, eleven languages and a low literacy rate.

But what is also clear is that reform and regulation now represent mainstream modern democratic thinking, though the detail of the regulation varies and must be contextually orientated.

In Britain public disclosure of contributions is required only of corporations and unions. Parties are required to submit quarterly reports that detail donor information such as their name and address and the nature of the donations which are submitted to the Electoral Commission. German law entitles parties or several of its bodies to receive donations, but donations that exceed a value of 10,000 euro per year must be publicly disclosed by giving the name and address of the donor as well as the total amount in the annual report. Donations that exceed 50,000 euro have to be reported immediately.

Whatever the shortcomings of regulating private funding to political parties (and as has been seen in the UK, Germany and the United States, there have been problems with the implementation of regulations) the advantages of transparency are abundantly clear. 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. So, in a sense, requesting greater amounts of public money is only one aspect of this challenge because the nub of the problem lies in the millions of rands raised in secret and the accountability deficit that has created in our political processes.

Perhaps the new Parliament might start its term with a commitment to filling the lacuna in South Africa's anti-corruption apparatus and initiating legislation to ensure that political parties are transparent about their sources of funding? The public has the right to know who is funding our political parties - because secrecy only breeds mistrust and an environment which is ripe for corruption.

Judith February of the Institute for Security Studies will chair an open discussion this morning at 10am at 6 Spin Street, Cape Town with ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize, DA MP Lance Greyling, Lawson Naidoo of CASAC and Greg Solik of My Vote Counts. Details at www.issafrica.org/events.