By: Robyn Pasensie

Among the upheaval of 2020 it may have gone unnoticed that President Cyril Ramaphosa signed a key piece of legislation, the Promotion of Access to Information Amendment Act (PAIA Amendment Act), into law on 5 June, which provides for access to information on political funding.

This legislation was drafted to align with another new law aimed at regulating private political funding, the Political Party Funding Act, signed into law in January last year.

But the Acts are not operational and no date has been gazetted for the promulgation of either.

This situation makes it impossible to know where political parties get their private funding from and, because of the lack of regulation in this regard, the situation of political parties receiving their funding from any source, without disclosing it, continues. The electorate needs the information, particularly as we look towards another election in 2021.

My Vote Counts (MVC) is an organisation that champions accountability and transparency and has been trying to shed light on this issue. In January this year it wrote a letter endorsed by about 20 civil society organisations calling for the president to gazette a date of implementation.

The MVC advocates for the right to access information because it relates to creating transparent and accountable political spaces and holding public officials accountable. Knowing and regulating how political parties are funded safeguards against the presence of illicit or criminal money in politics, creates a more equitable electoral space, regulates political competition and is a mechanism to deter corruption.

Knowing where political parties are receiving their funding from acts as a check against the undue influence of private and narrow interests in our country. The public needs to understand how their political parties are funded to make more informed decisions.

In 2016, the MVC made an application before the Western Cape High Court seeking that PAIA be declared unconstitutional and ineffective on the basis that it failed to provide proper  access to information relating to the  private funding of political parties and independent candidates. Ultimately this led the Constitutional Court in 2018 confirming that sections of PAIA were unconstitutional because the Act did not make provision for the recording, preservation and disclosure of private funding of political parties and independent candidates.

The court found that information of private funding of political parties and independent candidates is “essential for the effective exercise of the right to make political choices and to participate in the elections”. It gave parliament 18 months to rectify those parts of the Act that were inconsistent with the Constitution and take other measures if necessary.

The objective of the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) is to regulate the public and private funding of political parties and create a framework for a more transparent political process. The amended PAIA legislation, once enacted, will compel political parties and independent candidates to create and maintain records of all private donations of more than R100 000 each financial year for a period of five years and release this information publicly on a quarterly basis. This is an important step towards greater transparency and will also be an important mechanism to deter corruption.

In recent weeks the importance of understanding where party funding comes from and the need for regulation and transparency have been highlighted by the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). In a statement released in November, the IEC reiterated its support of the Act and urged the president to announce its implementation date.

Secrecy regarding political party funding and the lack of appropriate legislation to tackle this has helped to create an environment in which private money and interests have allowed corruption to take root. The level of corruption and state capture has necessitated the need for a specialised inquiry, the Zondo commission, where we are continually astounded by the deep levels of corruption.

The inherent importance of understanding how our political parties are funded is the link between money and power. Transparency in party funding should be a concern for everyone to ensure that decisions are made in the public good.

This piece was originally published in the Mail & Guardian.