Unlike private funding, which is regulated by the Political Party Funding Act, public funding is not regulated by one clear piece of legislation, writes Robyn Pasensie.
As the top brass of the ANC focus on the party’s upcoming elective conference, the attention is not only on who will take pole position but also on how the party will be able to afford this spectacle.
Recent media reports have cast doubts on the viability of the December conference, given how cash-strapped the ANC is. Chief accused number one for this financial crisis, according to the ANC, is the newly implemented Political Party Funding Act (PPFA).
The question of political party funding is, however, not only about private funding regulation. Political party funding in South Africa is derived from both public and private funding. For political party funding as a whole, it is worth taking a moment to turn our gaze to public funding to understand the crisis of accountable party funding.
ANC bigwigs like National Spokesperson Pule Mabe and Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile have denounced the PPFA as being counter-productive to raising funds for political parties. While the rhetoric implies that the PPFA has stymied funding, it is worth noting that private funding is only one avenue of funding a political party can receive. Represented political parties (political parties in the national or provincial legislature) also receive public funding. That’s public money that you and I pay through our taxes. The PPFA only seeks to regulate private funding (money not from taxes) so that private influence cannot take hold of our politics. The ghosts of state capture prove all too well what that looks like.
Toxic relationship between money and politics
Addressing the elephant in the room that is the toxic relationship between money and politics, My Vote Counts recently hosted a webinar on the nature of political party funding in South Africa. Given the ANC’s recent comments on this matter, we invited Paul Mashatile to present the party’s stance on party funding but alas just like Ronald Lamola in our webinar on intra-party democracy, Mashatile was a no-show. The significance of this discussion cannot be overstated. Since the implementation of the PPFA on 1 April last year, there has been no shortage of complaints against the Act and what it purports to do. Everything from the disclosure threshold of R100 000 being too restrictive and the anonymity of donors not being guaranteed has been called into question by various political parties.
In the first year of the PPFA, declared private funding totalled almost R150 million. The ANC declared a total of R66 million, and the DA almost R47 million. One could be mistaken for thinking the declared private money disclosed under PPFA is all parties receive. However, this is simply untrue. Represented political parties receive public funds through three streams all flowing from the National Treasury: the IEC, Parliament, and provincial legislatures. For the 2020/2021 period, represented political parties received a total of R1.5 billion in public funding. Public money isn’t a free for all and cannot be spent on anything and everything a political party wishes.
But if our political parties are receiving public money derived from our taxes, what does that mean for us? One would hope that this means we have greater accountability because large sums of money are being funnelled to our political parties directly from our pockets.
However, theory and practice here could not be more different. Unlike private funding, which is regulated by the PPFA, public funding is not regulated by one clear piece of legislation. There are numerous laws, including provincial party funding laws, which regulate how public money can be spent and allocated. We can set our watch to the publishing of the quarterly private funding disclosures, but we cannot say the same for public funding. In a report outlining access to public funding information, MVC noted that accessing public funding information is not nearly as simple or easy as one would imagine it would be.
While in theory reporting on public funding happens in IEC annual reports, provincial reports and in Parliament’s annual report the truth is that reporting format, structure, level of detail and ease of accessibility vary greatly, leading to an uneven reporting that leaves the public wanting in terms of accountability and transparency for how their money is being spent.
Political parties cry foul over the PPFA, but we must remain clear in our call that they need to be transparent regarding all the money they receive, both private and public. Since we already have a robust public funding system, perhaps, we should be looking at ways in which to leverage this existing system to address both the apparent dwindling of private funding and the need for honest, accountable politics.
Political parties should not be relying so heavily on private funding where the possibility of capture remains high through these private entities buying influence. The ideal of a democracy is to provide an equal say to every person on how they wish to be governed.
An overreliance on private funding and private interests shifts our democracy in the opposite direction. We should be looking at our public funding as the new frontier for political party funding. We already have a dual system of political parties receiving both private and public funding, but we are not quite seeing the dividends of an accountable politics. Viewed in this context, the claims against the PPFA don’t seem as clear-cut.
Political parties take our votes and our money, and we should demand the accountability, transparency, and governance we deserve because of it.