The non-disclosure of political funding is a national disgrace, write Murray Hunter and Vinayak Bhardwaj.
Johannesburg - The front page report in The Sunday Independent that billionaire Natie Kirsh may be the “mystery donor” behind the failed DA-AgangSA merger has excited much interest in his alleged role as a political donor. Rightfully so. But this is an illustration of a much greater scandal, not the scandal itself – and the ANC would be deeply dishonest to try to score points off it.
The news had not been on the streets long before readers began to piece together information about Kirsh’s contentious ties to the security barrier that separates Israel from the West Bank. (The Kirsh Group is the major shareholder of Magal S3, which controversially received lucrative contracts with the Israeli Ministry of Defence to provide security systems to the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories.)
While Kirsh’s controversial business interests and purported financial links to opposition parties caused much chatter among the Twitterati, it appears to have obscured rather than highlighted the greater scandal: it is disgraceful that no major political party has declared the source of its funding.
It is right that prospective voters for Agang or the DA conduct “due diligence”, on the reasonable inference that Kirsh is a financier of one or perhaps both parties, to decide whether such a financial link would change their vote or have any role in shaping their party’s policy or programme.
But such “due diligence” is almost universally denied to South African voters across the political spectrum.
Ducking international best practice, South Africa’s political parties have refused time and again to disclose their sources of funding – providing an opportunity for anonymous billionaires, corporations and even foreign governments to buy influence and shape policy from the shadows.
Many remember Idasa’s unsuccessful legal challenge to secret party funding in 2004, but perhaps the parties have forgotten their undertaking before a court that Parliament should enact party-funding regulations, including transparency around major donors.
In the past 10 years, Parliament has resolutely failed to pass or even consider such legislation, and a refusal to disclose sources of funding seems to be the one thing all major parties agree on. Recent, frustrated efforts by the My Vote Counts campaign to get Parliament to make good on its promises are evidence of how deeply unwanted such regulations are.
Even while opposition parties have argued that the current system has disadvantaged them, their lacklustre effort to drive for reform is telling.
Ironically, while this secrecy benefits the parties themselves in the short term (and benefits the most influential parties most), it is exactly this vacuum of information that amplifies any scandal relating to party funding – like when a billionaire with investments in a global military-industrial complex is revealed as a potential financial backer.
While scrutiny of this one alleged financier to one party is certainly in the public interest, it should fuel outrage at the almost complete lack of transparency shown by political parties across the spectrum when it comes to their funding.
Voters should question how much more we would know about who we vote for (or don’t vote for) if we knew the true source of the rands (and dollars, pounds, euros and dinars) that bankroll our politics in the unregulated system.
In the coming elections, as politicians go from district to district to shake hands, kiss babies and hand out paraphernalia, voters should be shouting “Show us the money”.
While this is the year when we celebrate the 20th anniversary of electoral democracy, it is also, sadly, a time to reflect on whether the right to vote is meaningful without the right to know.
It is up to Parliament – and all the parties in it – to rise to the challenge of regulating secret political funding. But it is up to the people of South Africa to send a clear message to politicians so that politics-as-usual cannot continue: no openness, no vote! Until then, South Africa risks becoming a “one rand, one vote” democracy.