U-turn on disclosure hypocritical

By Joel Bregman

The recent report from the ANC’s National Working Committee (NWC) to the National Executive Committee (NEC) recommending that the ruling party lobby political parties in Parliament to amend the Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) is irresponsible, short-sighted, self-serving, and morally reprehensible.

The ANC NWC wants to increase the annual threshold for disclosure from R100 000 to R250 000 or R500 000. It also wants to amend the upper limit that a single donor can make to a party in a year.

Currently, this amount is R15 million, already substantial and enough for an individual or a few people to heavily influence a party. The ANC wants this amount to increase to R50m, R100m, or be removed completely. In addition, they want dividends and investments of political parties (such as their investment arm, Chancellor House) to be exempt from disclosure, as well as to increase the amount foreign entities can donate.

Both the ANC and the DA have previously stated that the act has made it difficult to solicit donations and maintain financial health. But this is not sufficient reason for the relationships between political parties and private capital to be shrouded in secrecy.

Rather, parties should be introspective about the way they have managed their own affairs. They should also question why donors do not want to be publicly associated with them. It begs the question – what types of nefarious relationships existed under the cover of secrecy before the PPFA came into effect?

In January 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the PPFA into law. At the time, The Presidency issued a statement lauding the development as, “a historic development for transparency and accountability in South Africa”.

This characterisation was spot on. After almost two decades of lobbying, and extensive litigation by civil society, for the first time in South Africa’s history there was a law that would regulate political party funding, public and private, and provide crucial access to information about donors and their donations to political parties.

Before the PPFA, the absence of legislation to compel political parties to disclose their donors had facilitated an environment in which private interests captured our politics.

Instead of the needs of the people being served, it was very often those of wealthy, influential individuals who were the real beneficiaries. Ramaphosa came into power with the promise of a New Dawn, a reset to begin rebuilding the country and its institutions, several of which had been hollowed out by years of State Capture.

To rebuild, to turn the tide on State Capture, and limit to the greatest degree possible the influence of private interests in our politics, requires more than the PPFA.

However, it should serve as a central piece of our accountability and transparency framework. The PPFA could have been, and still can be, a legacy of the Ramaphosa administration, a tangible, long-lasting contribution to South Africa giving people the power to exercise their political rights more effectively and to clamp down on undue influence and related corruption.

While the PPFA is an extensive piece of legislation, a fundamental element of the law and partly what gives it real teeth is its threshold limits – R100 000 and R15m.

We have seen from the Zondo Commission how relatively small amounts of money can corrupt. If for example, the disclosure threshold is increased to R500 000, it immediately will open the door for people to buy influence once again.

If the ANC is successful in its attempt to amend the law, the obvious effect will be more secrecy. Less than a year since the law has been in place, attempts are being made to dismantle crucial aspects and to return to the days when parties could receive funds from private sources without telling the public.

How can this be acceptable, especially when it was the very same party that developed and supported the law? One would assume that a law should be amended when it is found to be unconstitutional, lacks the teeth for it to be sufficiently robust, or is no longer serving its purpose.

In this case, there will likely be efforts to change a law because it is not beneficial to political parties. The law is doing as intended – it regulates funding and facilitates disclosure. A consequence of this is that it contributes to combating corruption.

These are positive developments that do not need diluting. As My Vote Counts has previously said, the law needs to be strengthened, including the lowering of thresholds, to continue closing the spaces in which secrecy in political funding can exist.

In 2019, the then ANC spokesperson, Dakota Legoete pointed to the ANC’s support for the PPFA as evidence of, “…ANC’s commitment to constitutional values of fairness, equity, accountability and transparency”.

Given these recent developments, this comment and the about-turn from the ANC leadership is a contemptuous display of hypocrisy. After being in operation for less than one year, with only two sets of disclosures published, the ANC (and probably the other parties represented in Parliament) wants to go back on their word for their own narrow interests.

This can only be seen in the most cynical of lights. It is a blatant effort to turn back the clocks, to diminish our democracy and take away our rights.

To quote Jeff Bridges’s character, the Dude, in the Coen brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski, “this aggression will not stand.”

Originally published by IOL.