Credit: One Red Eye/Philip Meech.

The R9 million public donation by SABMiller to six political parties ahead of the next national election in 2014 has placed the spotlight on corporate funding of the governing party and the five major opposition parties, while raising concerns of influence peddling by big business.

Cope MP Juliana Kilian said her party believed in transparency of donations to fight influence peddling.

But she acknowledged that it was a complex matter because if there was complete transparency, there was the likelihood that some funders of opposition parties would fall away because they would not wish to alienate the ruling ANC.

“In principle we believe corporate funding of political parties should be open. It is more important to know who is funding the ruling party as they can dish out the goodies,” she said.

However, Kilian said there were also huge pressures on donors who were linked to the ANC not to give to opposition parties.

These included parties which sponsored the business breakfasts and programmes of the ANC business networking arm, the Progressive Business Forum.

She noted that big companies, such as those involved in the big government construction projects, would be loathe to be seen sponsoring opposition parties because the ANC viewed this as ”unpatriotic activity”.

Mario Oriano-Ambrosini, an IFP MP, said his party had backed the DA’s view that complete transparency of funding would drive away donors who feared political retaliation. However, Canada had a good system which could be emulated in South Africa, he believed. In their constituencies, a candidate was limited to spend only as much as his or her opponents could spend.

Yet in South Africa there was a significant stream of public funding through the Independent Electoral Commission, which was reported in public, but there was no limit to fundraising from the private sector, which was entirely untransparent, Ambrosini pointed out.

Lance Greyling, an Independent Democrats MP who has been outspoken in support of transparency of funding of political parties, now finds himself in the DA caucus since the two parties merged in the municipal elections in 2010. He now says that transparency cannot happen in isolation. There have to be regulations in place to deal with the issues.

“You can’t expect one political party to reveal their donors while the others do not. If companies wished to disclose by themselves the extent of their funding of political parties, then that is to be encouraged.”

SABMiller said its board had approved plans to provide funding to political parties in South Africa for next year’s general election. “The funding is part of the group’s on-going commitment to encourage the development of South Africa’s democratic political system,” it said in a statement.

It argued that the donation had nothing to do with liquor legislation being piloted through the Gauteng legislation, banning Sunday liquor sales.

SABMiller had asked South African Breweries to make a donation of R9m, which would be distributed across the six largest political parties in the National Assembly. They were the ANC – which would receive R5m – the DA, Cope, the IFP, the UDM and the Freedom Front Plus.

At the Mangaung conference last year the ANC’s then treasurer general Mathews Phosa supported the expanded public funding of political parties. A resolution was passed saying that “public funding should be expanded in order to promote and support democracy”.

“Such funding will be accompanied by full financial accountability and transparency by political parties, including regulation of private financing of political parties,” the resolution read.

Political economist Steven Friedman said he was not sure whether this would come to pass. He noted that former AngloGold Ashanti chief executive Bobby Godsell had fostered the proportional model of private funding for political parties. “The idea was to strengthen multiparty democracy.”

The problem with this model was that larger parties got a bigger slice of the pie.

Friedman said he did not buy the argument that businesses were punished for their support of opposition parties. In some cases it was well known that businesses supported a particular party, such as Anglo American which had in previous years backed the Progressive Federal Party when the Oppenheimers had run the show.

The Human Sciences Research Council’s Judith February said support for transparency had been greeted with arguments that this was an attempt to stop political parties from raising money. “That is not the point… what we are trying to do is prevent influence peddling. The problem at the moment is that we don’t have any framework (to govern) political donations to political parties.”

She also had a problem with expanded public funding. “I don’t think the voter has the appetite for that,” she said.