Who funds our political parties?

The issue of funding to political parties was in the spotlight again last week, after African National Congress (ANC) Chief Whip Stone Sizani accused the Democratic Alliance (DA) of remaining silent on the situation in Gaza because the party had received funding from Israeli-aligned individuals. Currently, South African political parties are not obliged to disclose the origins of private donations. Earlier this month, the My Vote Counts campaign launched an application at the Constitutional Court to try to compel Parliament to pass legislation to change this.

Should political parties have to disclose who funds them? Around the world, countries differ in how they handle this issue. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, there are around 60 countries in which political parties are obliged to disclose all donations made to them above a particular threshold.

There is little consistency as to what this threshold should be. In the UK, political donations only have to be disclosed if they are greater than £7,500. In the US, federal political candidates have to provide the names, occupations and addresses of all individuals who give them more than $200 in an election cycle. In Germany, donors who give more than €10,000 have to be named in the relevant political party's annual report. As of 2006, the Australian threshold is $10,000, adjusted annually for inflation.

The motivation for transparency in this regard is simple. "As long as private contributions are kept hidden and unregulated," wrote the Institute for Security Studies's Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo last year, "it is possible for narrow private interests, such as those of corporations and wealthy individuals, to exercise undue influence over political parties".

As Business Day pointed out earlier this year, one of the recent occasions on which it became evident that donors to South African parties can wield a strong influence on the party's direction was in the short-lived merger between the DA and Mamphela Ramphele's Agang. "It was not only one donor that put pressure on Mamphela. It was every donor," Zille said at the time.

The need for transparency in political funding is accepted as something of a no-brainer in many established democracies. Georgetown University academic Clyde Wilcox wrote in a 2001 paper: "It is almost an article of faith in the US that disclosure leads to a less corrupt campaign system."

Among the advantages of funding transparency, suggests Wilcox, are that the disclosure of donations helps to control corruption; it increases accountability; it engenders greater trust in government; and helps citizens to better understand politics.

In South Africa, the call for parties to have to disclose the source of their funding is not new. In 2005, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) approached the Cape High Court on the matter. What Idasa aimed to do was establish the principle that political parties are obliged to disclose donations in accordance with the right of access to information enshrined in the Constitution, and the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

The four political parties named in the application - the ANC, the DA, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the New National Party - all opposed the application, in what Judge Bennie Griesel snidely noted was "an uncharacteristic display of solidarity across party-political divisions".

Griesel decided against Idasa, ruling that, among other aspects, "disclosure of donor funding is not a prerequisite to free and fair elections". But his judgment also noted that a "compelling case" had been made that "private donations to political parties ought to be regulated by way of specific legislation in the interest of greater openness and transparency".

Now the courts are being approached on this matter again, this time by the campaign group My Vote Counts.

On 16 July, My Vote Counts lodged an application at the Constitutional Court for "an order declaring that Parliament has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to enact national legislation to bring about transparency in the private funding of political parties".

In simple terms, coordinator Gregory Solik told the Daily Maverick on Sunday, "My Vote Counts wants the Constitutional Court to confirm that in terms of the Constitution, secrecy in political party funding does not pass muster and therefore [Parliament] has a duty to pass legislation that ensures that citizens have access to important information". In this way, the right to vote can mean the right to cast a truly informed vote.

Solik stresses that My Vote Counts is not taking a public stance on exactly what kind of legislation Parliament should pass to ensure transparency of funding. "[My Vote Counts] wants to debate that in Parliament with the benefit of submissions from activists, lawyers, political scientists etc.," Solik said. "All we are saying at the moment is that total secrecy is unconstitutional, which we want the Constitutional Court to confirm, and therefore force Parliament to draft legislation to be debated."

Solik says that the DA and the Department of Justice have filed a notice to defend. That the DA would choose to fight the motion is unsurprising, because the party and its leader Helen Zille have repeatedly argued that forcing parties to disclose their funding sources would be bad for opposition politics in South Africa.

Zille had to deal with the issue head-on last January, when it emerged that the DA had taken funding from an executive in a company owned by the Guptas. "Ideally the DA would prefer full transparency," Zille wrote in her weekly newsletter at the time. "But if we were the only party to apply it, most of our donations would dry up - together with any prospect of sustaining democracy in South Africa."

Zille believes that if it were made public where the DA gets its money, the relevant individuals and companies could be punished by the ANC - for instance, by withholding government contracts.

"That parties require money is an important point and the threat to opposition parties and minorities is a concern that must be taken seriously," Solik says. "However, currently, this is merely a bald allegation and no evidence whatsoever has been advanced to support it." He adds that "while this may be a valid concern, there are equally pressing issues such as corruption in politics that must be assessed together".

In February last year, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) rubbished Zille's fears about the consequences of disclosure.

"There is no evidence that donors to the DA will suffer reprisals," Casac said in a statement. "When AngloGold Ashanti decided to declare its donations to the DA it suffered no such reprisal. In fact the then Secretary-General of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe, congratulated AngloGold on adopting such a principled position."

There have been instances in the US, however, where smaller political parties have successfully sued for an exemption from the funding disclosure rule because they thought their donors might face harassment, such as the Socialist Workers' Party in 1982. Clyde Wilcox suggests that this possibility should be taken particularly seriously in emerging democracies: "If disclosing contributions would expose citizens to threats of reprisals from government, the ruling party, or from private groups or individuals, then the disadvantages of disclosure are likely to outweigh the benefits."

There is one other potential disadvantage to disclosure which Wilcox feels is worth mentioning. "Disclosure systems also expose citizens to the gory details of politics, and this is not always a pleasant experience," he writes.

"Indeed, in the short or even medium run, a newly implemented disclosure regime may decrease trust as citizens come to see the financial constituencies of their political heroes, and as the magnitude of political money becomes apparent. Much as a hungry man may lose his appetite as he tours a sausage factory, so those who inspect the details of policymaking may come out with greater distaste for politics."

It's certainly not a reason not to enforce funding transparency. But if the My Vote Counts campaign succeeds, we may all find that we have a great deal more innocence left to lose than we thought possible.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.