The recent social unrest has shaken the foundation of the post-1994 democratic project in South Africa. In recognising that ineffective governance and deepening inequality cannot continue, we must ask: What can we do to change this?
The allegations of corruption laid bare at the Zondo Commission into State Capture have exposed countless examples of a state that seems to be more beholden to private interests than to serving its people and the public good. To remedy this situation, perhaps this is where we should start: in the creation of a transparent and accountable political space.
If unfettered access to state coffers comes about through unregulated private money in our politics, then a framework that seeks to regulate this should be championed. If our politicians and government can be prevented from being bought, then perhaps our democracy can work in the best interests of the people and not a select deep-pocketed few.
On 1 April this year, two important pieces of legislation came into effect, the Promotion of Access to Information Amendment Act and the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA). These Acts, especially the PPFA, are crucial in creating a transparent and accountable framework for political funding and, by extension, political action.
However, prior to the adoption of the PPFA, there was concern over how transparent political parties should be in disclosing how they are funded.
In 2005, the Western Cape High Court in Idasa v ANC & Others ruled that political parties were private bodies that did not need to disclose their sources of private funding.
This changed in 2018 when the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of My Vote Counts (MVC), ruling that funding disclosure is imperative for the public to be able to make informed decisions when they vote. In a recent article, MVC outlined the impact of the PPFA on voting and the local government elections, now likely to be postponed.
But it is not just in an informed electorate that we can see the fruits of the PPFA; it is also in its ability to engender a commitment to the public good over self-enrichment. In so doing, it is important to recognise that, although the PPFA is a historic piece of legislation, it alone cannot achieve the ideal of transparent and accountable politics. A collective change is also required from both the public and politicians.
In other words, we should also be involved in a social project that aims to recentre honesty and the needs of the people at the heart of our politics.
The PPFA has been a long time coming and, now that it is here, the work of civil society has shifted. This shift is from research, advocacy and litigation to get the PPFA enacted towards a new phase of monitoring, evaluation and a new kind of advocacy around the now implemented Act.
Political parties are one of the primary vehicles (alongside independent candidates) through which we can participate in democracy and be endowed with the ability to undertake political decisions.
If we are to support the PPFA by ensuring its compliance with the law and while entrenching a focus on public good, it is important to know how South Africa scores on a broader scale of accountability in politics. This places the Act in a greater context of why accountability and transparency matter. According to Transparency International, in measuring African states’ adherence to the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, corruption remains a major obstacle to economic growth and good governance on the continent.
In reference to South Africa, it noted that, although the PPFA was a significant step forward, there was still the issue of illicit enrichment (inexplicable wealth of public officials, which seems to be the proceeds of corruption) not being fully criminalised and the lack of a good record of enforcement in dealing with money-laundering offences.
These are important to note because they provide a clear opportunity for those individuals who still wish to buy influence in politics and those who are making themselves available to be bought.
This is one example of an area in which the public can rally to create those open and honest spaces as a counter to more nefarious-minded opportunists.
The PPFA also does not regulate investments and investment vehicles held by political parties and does not require disclosure thereof – another example of a lack of transparent politics.
This makes it even more imperative to push for change that happens not only as a result of legislation but is also a result of a political culture that favours the public good over narrow interests.
These are crucial to understanding that, although we welcome the PPFA, it is not a one-stop shop to end corruption by unregulated private money. It stands as a significant step towards this, but it must be met with concomitant efforts to ensure its compliance and more widespread transparency.
Among the many analyses that emerged in the wake of the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal riots and looting was the understanding that deep-rooted structural issues such as poverty and apartheid spatial planning have left many South Africans locked out of the promises of democracy.
Professor Steven Friedman, in an opinion piece, has noted that, although it is indeed plausible that poverty was one of the core drivers of the looting – driven by dire economic circumstances – it is an insufficient explanation for the violence, especially the attacks on infrastructure. Instead, he points to shifting dynamics in political power.
This shift may have left some politicians and private individuals feeling as though they were no longer a part of the local political networks that gave them power and are now without their source of money.
Here it is the patronage networks that have so entrenched a certain type of political behaviour that the thought of losing grip on this pipeline to money and power drove some of the more targeted attacks and mayhem.
Open Secrets, an organisation pushing for more accountability, recently said in a press statement that part of the problem is politicians who have engaged in rampant looting of state resources and established networks to make this possible.
Taking this into consideration, it seems a daunting task to steer ourselves out of this mess. But it is necessary now more than ever to take a firm stance on how money is given, obtained and used in politics.
It is not enough to have championed the enactment of legislation such as the PPFA – it is still incumbent upon us all to create a political culture that can thrive and work for the people.
If we do this, we can possibly hope to ensure a future in which we are better equipped to deal with challenges that may crop up to further undermine transparent politics.
In a world that is ever-changing, it is necessary to first build a foundation that works to uphold a democracy founded on accountability to the people.
Originally published in the DM168 and Daily Maverick online.