OPINION: For the first time in South Africa, we now have access to information about the private funding of our political parties. It is a momentous occasion that will serve to change our democracy, writes Robyn Pasensie.

The first set of private funding disclosures under the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) debuted with much excitement and interest on September 9.

For the first time in South Africa, we now have access to information about the private funding of our political parties.

It is a momentous occasion that will serve to change our democracy.

But with only three political parties making disclosures in the reporting period, what does that indicate for the future of this legislation and democracy?

According to the act, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) is required to publish, on a quarterly basis, all private funding declarations made by political parties.

The act compels parties to disclose all donations received above R100 000 to the IEC.

It makes clear the main obligation on parties: account for where your money comes from.

The discourse on party funding legislation began with the dawn of democracy and the PPFA was finally enacted on April 1.

However, only three out of more than 500 registered political parties made disclosures.

The ANC, DA and ActionSA were the only parties to declare that they received qualifying donations (above the threshold amount).

This assumes that 12 out of 14 of the political parties currently represented in the National Assembly have not received any individual donations above R100 000 in the reporting period of April 1 to June 30.

It paints a worrying picture that more than 78% of registered political parties chose to ignore the legislation and reminders from the IEC.

Not enough data, yet.

However, in order to provide useful analysis on these disclosures we have to consider that:

1. The reporting period covers three months, from the commencement of the act on April 1 to June 30. No private donations received prior to this date are included.

This means that while parties can be compliant with donations received in the reporting period, it is not an accurate reflection of all donations received for the year (before April1).

There are still more disclosures to be made in the coming reporting periods.

2. The threshold amount of R100 000 is a cumulative amount. This means that multiple donations made by the same person or entity must be tallied and once it reaches R100 000 must be declared.

It is possible that political parties received smaller donations below the threshold amount but will have to disclose donations in future given the cumulative nature of the threshold.

3. Political parties must keep financial records of all money that comes in, and it must be recorded in a financial report prepared by an auditor.

This report must be made available at the end of a financial year. This means that even if a party only receives small donations that do not meet the threshold amount, all their donations and other financial transactions will still be recorded.

The disclosures, also, have no precedent.

Given this it would be premature to declare the act as failing in its mission to bring accountability and transparency to money in politics.

The efficacy of the act can only be truly measured once there have been more disclosures and, importantly, on completion of the audits at the end of the financial year.

To trumpet the ineffectiveness of the act based on one data set would be overhasty.

This legislation cannot stand alone in the face of momentous corruption and a political culture of self-enrichment.

More legislative action is needed, coupled with advocacy and activism.

One way to shore up the act is to advocate for broad-based and collective ownership of political parties through funds such the Multi-party Democracy Fund (MPDF).

The fund allows individuals to donate to political parties, and the IEC is mandated to disperse the funds to political parties.

The fund is meant to encourage people to donate in the name of democracy and fair competition. Given that the act is meant to facilitate greater openness, the shared responsibility of funding politics by the general public is a way of engendering both greater participation by the public and more accountability to voters by political parties.

Given the importance of the act it was disappointing that it only received one donation in the reporting period.

To shift the focus of power away from a few elite private donors with narrow interests, more attention should be taken off this fund to shift focus to the broader public.

Despite the concerns, this is a historic moment in our young democracy.

It is the first time the public has some access to how political parties are funded.

The act has the potential to provide more insight on the potential influence by private money.

We should view these disclosures as a continuum and we must continue to assess the level of compliance with the act and its effectiveness.

Importantly, this moment is the first step towards more political transparency, accountability and deepening of our democracy.

Originally printed in Weekend Argus, Saturday Star and Saturday Independent and published on IOL.