People who use money to buy politicians are “just like drug takers in the Tour de France, always one step ahead of the controllers”, says former Constitutional Court Justice and the first chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Johann Kriegler.
“The ingenuity of human beings to circumvent rules that are sought to be there for the benefit of all of us is without limit,” he added.
Justice Kriegler was commenting on a bid by accountability advocate Paul Hoffman to force the IEC to pronounce on the private funding of political parties.
Hoffman has asked the public protector to investigate the IEC’s failure to act in the face of the unwillingness of political parties in Parliament to create legislation regulating such funding.
He argues the ANC’s use of its investment arm, Chancellor House, to score billions in income through its interests in Hitachi Power Africa, which won the Eskom contract to supply boilers at the Medupi and Kusile power stations, amounts to an unfair electoral advantage as it can be used in campaigning.
Parties not in government cannot compete on an equal basis in the circumstances, Hoffman argues, and says the IEC’s mandate to ensure free and fair elections demands that it take up the matter.
But Justice Kriegler said while it was easy to “wax lyrical” about regulating party funding, “it’s virtually impossible to police it correctly”.
The US had tried for years and had yet to succeed, while in other countries such efforts had produced perverse outcomes.
In the Maldives, where parties were funded by the state on the basis of their membership, they would pay “people in the street” to sign up so they could access these funds.
The two were speaking on Tuesday at a round table hosted by the Foundation for Public Dialogue in Cape Town, where the question of electoral reform in the interests of greater accountability was discussed.
Some speakers argued that increasing community protests illustrated the demand for greater accountability among public representatives.
The DA and newcomer Agang have launched campaigns for electoral reform ahead of elections next year, both drawing on the work of a task team headed by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, which produced a report on possible electoral reform in 2003.
The majority view of that report proposed a mixed, multi-member constituency and proportional representation system to allow voters to identify their local representatives and hold them accountable.
South Africa currently uses a pure proportional representation system for national and provincial elections, which many argue hands control over public representatives to party bosses, who draw up the lists from which MPs are drawn according to the party’s share of the vote.
As a result, critics say, MPs take little notice of the concerns of their constituencies and are largely absent from them except in the run-up to elections.
But UCT’s Professor Anthony Butler warned that introducing a constituency-based element could have dire unintended consequences.
He agreed with Justice Kriegler and Hoffman that money in politics was a huge problem, which was “destroying the ANC”.
While the party was electorally dominant, it was “internally shambolic, enormously disorganised”.
“At times it’s difficult to believe it exists as a party at all,” Butler said.
Money played a major role in determining electoral outcomes at all levels within the party, as well as access to resources.
People in “provincial and regional fiefdoms” were battling over resources and this spilled over into national politics. The party needed “assistance” to maintain its coherence, including on policy and the selection of candidates.
The party list system gave it “a degree of leverage over what are otherwise very unruly provincial and regional assemblages of political barons who are hooked in at different levels to state resources”.
Without this leverage, the party would struggle to maintain internal order.
While the discussion had turned on the issue of encouraging a vibrant democracy, Butler suggested South Africa might not want “a democracy that is altogether too vibrant”.
The existing system helped control “ethnic mobilisation” through the strength of the major parties, but a constituency-based system “threatens to encourage ethnic mobilisation or racial mobilisation”.
This was a huge risk that “more than any other consideration should make us think more than twice about the introduction of constituency level competition”.
International experience had also shown that where candidates had a high degree of autonomy, “the money follows them” and they were often bought.