Stronger law on political party funding needed

Civil society working group on party funding submits proposal to strengthen Political Party Funding Act

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09/05/2023 08:08:11

.Image:  Flickr/GovernmentZA 

Stronger law on political party funding needed

On 5 May 2023, My Vote Counts (MVC), the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), together with other organisations and individuals, made a submission to Legislative Reform Reference Group of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council (NACAC).

Money has always been an integral part of politics, including democracy, and South Africa is no exception. However, the nature of money in politics has been destructive, as evidenced by State Capture. Private donations to political parties have a significant sphere of influence, which represents an important area for accountability and transparency in politics. Unfortunately, wealthy elites could subvert the democratic process by buying influence in political parties with large amounts of money donated to them.

The Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) was enacted to address undue private influence in politics. “Two years after its inception, there are crucial areas of concern about its efficacy in preventing this and external threats to its core functions of accountability and transparency”, says Sheilan Clarke, MVC’s Head of Communications and Stakeholder Management.

The PPFA was designed to establish greater frameworks for accountable and transparent politics in South Africa. It was not conceived primarily as an anti-corruption law but was meant to address corrupt behaviours or activities. At the very least, it aims to redress the perversion of a democratic process that we see as vested in the voting public and not wealthy private individuals. According to Clarke, the “PPFA is therefore essential to ensure that private and foreign donations do not exceed an acceptable threshold of influence and that the public can facilitate a check and balance on this influence. The law extends beyond procurement and related activities”.

The submission made to the Legislative Reform Reference Group of the National Anti-Corruption Advisory Council (NACAC) speaks to several issues. These include the recommendation that the PPFA should be amended to criminalize donations made to political parties with the expectation of being granted procurement tenders or contracts as a reward for such grants having been made. The adequacy of the threshold required to disclose funding received from donors and the annual cap on donations are also areas of concern. Furthermore, the current legislation has gaps that should be amended to prevent and combat corruption in South Africa.

Through research conducted by MVC, the most startling information to emerge was that every political party that disclosed had a small group of funders who contributed at least 50% to 70% of their overall donations. The information also revealed that large donors to political parties are in the minority, yet they make up most of the overall donations. Thresholds, both the minimum disclosure threshold and the upper limit, can be circumvented. While we can see general trends, such as these, emerge because of party funding disclosures, it still only represents a fraction of the funding picture. Our political parties also receive public funding, membership fees, and levies, which are governed by the PPFA. This information is not published in its totality to the public. Therefore, the quarterly disclosures published by the IEC of private donations do not represent a full proactive disclosure of all private funding information as governed by the PPFA.

The Civil Society Working Group believes that one of the critical ways to mitigate the potential of private funding to undermine democracy is to ensure proper access to information. The right to access to information is constitutionally protected in South Africa, and the PAIA amendment cemented the link between access to information and private sources of funding for political parties. The Constitutional Court also noted that the disclosure of private funding would help the public detect whose favours political players are likely to return once elected to public office.

Minhaj Jeenah, Executive Director of MVC, says that “We have already seen how money can distort democracy and eat away at the common good, as demonstrated by the Zondo Commission”. The PPFA serves to ensure a degree of accountability and transparency in a crucial area of politics: private and foreign party funding. “While political parties should be well financed in order to continue to be of benefit to the people, they cannot be allowed to be captured by private or foreign interests”, says Jeenah.

Those endorsing the submission include:

  1. Ahmed Kathrada Foundation 

  2. Alternative Information Development Centre 

  3. Corruption Watch 

  4. Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution 

  5. Defend Our Democracy 

  6. Democracy Development Programme 

  7. Helen Suzman Foundation 

  8. My Vote Counts

  9. Parliamentary Monitoring Group 

  10. Public Service Accountability Monitor 

  11. Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse 

  12. Right2KnowCampaign

The Civil Society Working Group on Party Funding is a civil society collective that works towards transparency in party funding and represents a unified opposition to any threats to the PPFA. OUTA is a member of the Working Group, due to its own research into the various streams of public funding allocated to Political Parties.

More information

A voicenote with comment by Rachel Fischer, OUTA Parliamentary Engagement and Research Manager, is here

See the Civil Society Working Group on Party Funding submission to NACAC here.

See My Vote Count’s research on political party funding here.

See OUTA’s research on political party funding in 2021 here.

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