Mukelani Dimba

One item, long neglected by the governing party, that deserves to be on the agenda in Midrand for the ANC policy conference is how political parties get their funds.

It is no secret that current funding arrangements – in which parties rely on generous donations from corporations and foreign interests without limits or disclosure – threaten South Africans’ hard-won democratic rights.

When the wealthy elite can buy their way into political influence while the majority of citizens with limited means stand by, the constitutional promise of “full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms” is undermined.

Fortunately, the ANC has long since recognised and affirmed the need for comprehensive reform.

In its 2007 Polokwane conference resolutions, the party committed itself to “champion public funding of represented political parties and effective regulation of private funding… to enhance accountability and transparency to the citizenry”.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has since declared that “the biggest threat to our movement is the intersection between business interests and holding public office” and called for “transparent declaration of the interests of all political parties and the funding thereof”.

We know that he is not alone. To support this worthy end, we offer three practical steps the governing party could take in Midrand finally to move forward on party funding reform and thereby help restore South Africans’ trust in the government.

First, as ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa recently declared, the party should carefully consider regulating private funding so as to prevent corruption and abuse.

“It cannot be laissez-faire. It can be very dangerous for our democracy and our country,” he said earlier this month.

Donations from abroad present a particular concern, as foreign states and multinational corporations are alleged to have contributed millions of rand to political parties while bidding for lucrative arms contracts or seeking access to SA mines.

In addition to banning foreign donations, the ANC should consider reasonable limits on the size of all donations and ways to rein in spending at election time.

Second, the party should urgently consider bringing all private funding into the light of day. It is said that human beings fear what they cannot see, and it is only natural that ordinary South Africans will fear political corruption when the money on which politicians depend is hidden from public view – regardless of whether corruption occurs. It is time SA joined the more than three-quarters of global democracies that already require strict and timely disclosure of party funds.

Third, as Phosa has also affirmed, the party should consider fair and robust public funding for all parties represented in Parliament.

On first view, the thought of spending additional money to support political parties will seem like a hard pill to swallow for cash-strapped South Africans. But consider that political parties, like elections and the constitution itself, are necessary components of a functioning democracy.

If that is not enough, consider the price we pay when we do not ensure that parties are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the South African people.

Indeed, when corporate interests foot the bill for parties and elections – as many appear only too willing to do in exchange for government tenders – the cost to taxpayers in terms of misspent public funds far exceeds the tiny fraction of 1 percent of the SA budget required to adequately fund political parties.

We believe SA cannot afford not to make this basic investment in our democracy.

Finally, there is the difficult question of party-controlled investment vehicles doing business with the state, which the ANC must consider this week.

It may seem odd to ordinary South Africans that parties should get involved in private business at all; their mandate, after all, is to represent and serve the interests of the people, not turn a profit.

When politicians and parties do business – especially when multibillion-rand state tenders are at issue – the voters will naturally see conflicts of interest and corruption, whether or not they occur.

To stem these growing concerns once and for all, the ANC could divest itself of its investment arm, Chancellor House, and include the same requirement for all political parties in party funding legislation tabled in Parliament.

Investment companies whose shares are held by parties could legally or voluntarily commit themselves not to invest in any enterprise doing business with the state.

Better still – because the hand of state-sponsored enterprise reaches far across the economy – they could confine themselves to passive investment instruments such as diversified index funds that track the performance of the economy as a whole.

Finally, they should open their books to public scrutiny in the manner of publicly traded companies. Indeed, if members of Parliament are required to disclose their gifts and shares, why shouldn’t the parties they represent?

Party political funding is hardly the only pressing concern ANC leaders must confront as they meet in Midrand this week. But it strikes at the very heart of our democracy.

We urge our national leaders to make good on their long-standing promise to regulate party funding once and for all through transparency, public funding, and limits on private donations and investments.

It is time we moved from rhetoric to reform.

l Mukelani Dimba is deputy executive director of the Open Democracy Advice Centre.