Concerns over political party donor bill must be addressed
Criticism of the bill in its current form should be invited. If Parliament approves amendments to the bill, this should not be an excuse for prolonging its adoption, preventing it from being implementable before the elections next year.
Political parties will be expected to disclose donations above R100 000 directly paid by donors into their bank accounts, and report the donors’ names and the amount donated to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC).
In the interest of trying to curb the influence of big, private donations on parties, the bill also prohibits certain sources of donations. Public-funding legislation is retained in the bill, but the bill establishes a “private fund” called the Multi-Party Democracy Fund (MPDF). Donors who wish to remain anonymous and prefer not to be affiliated to any one political party can donate to the MPDF instead of directly allocating money to a political party.
The IEC will distribute all donations amassed by the MPDF to all political parties represented in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures on a proportional and equitable basis.
Parliament is to be commended for quickly drafting this legislation in just under six months, and for the almost unanimous support for the bill expressed by political parties when it was passed in the National Assembly. It would be worrisome if there are hurdles that will prevent the bill from being effective before the elections.
In November last year, civil society made various suggestions for amendment to the ad hoc committee established by the National Assembly. Not all the suggested amendments were accepted by the committee, leaving the bill with various defects and loopholes. To draw attention to some of the issues, I will focus on three crucial ones.
Firstly, at odds with the motivation of the bill is a clause that allows donors who donate to the MPDF to keep their identity and the amount they donate a secret. The idea behind the MPDF is that a donor who doesn't want to be affiliated to a particular political party but wants to support multiparty democracy can donate to this fund instead of donating money directly to a party’s bank account.
The option for a donor to remain anonymous, however, goes against the spirit of the bill. This clause must be removed to allow the public the right to comprehensively monitor and evaluate relationships that political parties have with companies and wealthy individuals.
Secondly, if the bill aims to prevent influence and corruption through prohibiting certain sources of donations directly to political parties, it should prohibit companies that do business with the state from donating to political parties. The bill is an opportunity for Parliament to enhance public trust in the political system. If foreign governments were allowed to donate, and disclosure regulations made the public aware of this, there would be pressing concerns that an external influence is able to gain favour over the interest of the electorate. Similarly, if it was brought to the public’s attention that political parties receive donations from companies that do business with the state, there would be further concern as to whether companies are gaining undue influence from a political party.
Public trust in our political system needs to be strengthened, and all avenues to curb the influence of “big money” are important if Parliament is serious about engendering a healthy funding regime.
Thirdly, the bill sets the donation limit for a single donor at the ludicrously high amount of R15 million in any financial year. Exorbitantly high cash injections may be welcomed by political parties, despite the risk that such big donations could be a bargaining chip or means for a donor to control a party at the expense of the public’s interests. In a highly unequal society such as South Africa, this bill should protect the citizenry from wealthy elites’ interests, which are intent on diluting voters’ interests.
Another concern related to South Africa’s economic context is the disclosure threshold. Parties only have to report on donations above R100000, which might not be enough to fund an election campaign but it is still a significant amount of money - far beyond what the average South African earns. Especially at the local level, an amount of or below R100000 is enough for a property developer to twist the arm of a councillor to approve a construction plan that goes against the interests of a community.
Another scenario is that a donor could donate just below the threshold and avoid any scrutiny. A company may be able to donate an amount just under R100 000 and then donate under sub-entities of the company, avoiding any risk of disclosure and effectively donating more than R100 000.
In light of the identified defects and loopholes in the bill, one would think that it requires considerable changes. There are various other issues that civil society organisations have identified with this bill. In an ideal world, Parliament would seriously consider these amendments and push for this bill to be effective before the 2019 elections. However, one could argue that if these amendments are made and the bill is instituted before the elections, there would be at least some disclosure where before there was none.
* Grimwood is the party funding researcher at My Vote Counts NPC, a non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in South Africa. It works to ensure the political and electoral systems are open, fair and accountable to the public, and that they remain relevant in the changing socio-political context.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.