Non-disclosure a threat to democracy

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

There are many issues that the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance disagree on, but there is one point on which they close ranks – the question of whether political parties should be required to disclose who donates money to their coffers.

But let me step back a bit. A story that caught the attention of my media colleagues over the past week was the revelation that TNA Media, publishers of The New Age, have received substantial funding from state owned entities such as Telkom, Transnet, and Eskom as well as free airtime from the SABC for hosting a series of business breakfasts.

The DA cried foul. TNA Media then hit back pointing out that DA leader Helen Zille had spoken at one of those breakfasts and had thanked Telkom for sponsoring the event.

It was then subsequently "leaked" to my media colleagues that the Gupta family, owners of TNA Media, had donated a substantial amount of money to the DA. Said media colleagues have subsequently insisted that Zille declare whether or not this is true. Zille has refused to do so, referring the media to the Guptas (who in turn have been silent on the issue).

Zille's response: "They kept asking me whether we had received money from the Guptas. I kept replying: Ask them. If they wish to answer the question, they are free to do so. Indeed, I would welcome them clearing this matter up. But I cannot do so because the DA makes a commitment of confidentiality to our donors.

"This is the sad reality of South Africa’s democracy. Ideally the DA would prefer full transparency. But if we were the only party to apply it, most of our donations would dry up – together with any prospect of sustaining democracy in South Africa."

Well, actually the DA had the option to take the moral high ground and turned it down.

In 2003, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) brought an application before the Cape High Court to force political parties to disclose sources of funding.

Idasa asked that for every donation received to the value of more that R50 000, a political party should disclose the date of the donation; the name of the donor; the amount or value of the donation; and the conditions on which the donation was made and received, if any.

Now most of us would think that this is quite a reasonable thing to ask, but no. As the court found: "In an uncharacteristic display of solidarity across party-political divisions, all four respondents – which were the four largest political parties represented in Parliament prior to the last election – vigorously opposed the relief claimed by the applicants. "

The four parties were the ANC, the DA, the Inkatha Freedom Party, and the New National Party.

Now in fairness, Helen Zille was not leader of the DA at the time. I believe that had she been in the hot seat then instead of Tony Leon, the party's response to the court challenge would have been very different.

As it turned out, Idasa lost the case in court. Judge BM Griesel found that the Promotion of Access to Information Act was not sufficient grounds to disclose the information and that this was a matter that would be best addressed by legislation.

Now I'm in agreement with the general principle that one should not legislate from the bench. The court's decision in this case was in line with that thinking and as such was the correct decision.

The problem however is that legislation in this case would require the backing of the major political parties. Given that the four parties named controlled about 90 percent of the seats in Parliament at the time, the chances of them passing legislation forcing them to disclose funding when they had already opposed it in court was (and is) almost non-existent.

The US laws in this instance are instructive: Federal law restricts how much individuals and organisations may contribute to political campaigns, political parties, and other FEC-regulated organisations.

Corporations and unions are barred from donating money directly to candidates or national party committees.

And no individual may donate more that $2 500 to a candidate or $30 800 to a party or $117 000 overall every two years.

What this means is that it is almost impossible for foreign powers to substantially influence elections in the US by pouring money into the coffers of particular candidates.

We have no such protection. Would you be happy with the US or China or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia or Israel or anyone else giving 100 million dollars to any of our political parties in secret?

The financial support Julius Malema received for the ANC Youth League from Robert Mugabe is a case in point.

I believe that non-disclosure is a fundamental threat to democracy. It allows funders with deep pockets to invisibly influence the outcome of our politics and enrich themselves in the process.

I have no problem with the ANC or the DA receiving money from the Guptas or the Ramaphosas or the Oppenheimers or the Pillays. But we need to know so that if those worthy families then start receiving tenders or other favours, we can call in the Public Protector.