Politics and money are, for better or worse, inseparable. It is a reality of modern politics that political parties require significant funds to operate in any meaningful way.
To properly understand the issue of political party funding we should first take a step back and look at what the Constitution says about politics and political parties in South Africa. Our political rights are enshrined not only in the Bill of Rights, but also further enshrined in the first Chapter of the Constitution which provides specifically for “multi-party democracy”.
The Constitution is very specific about this, not just any sort of democracy, but multi-party democracy. These constitutional provisions are squarely aimed at reversing the political disempowerment of the previous regime. The Constitution seeks the realisation of the cherished ideal of “one person, one vote”. The Constitution further emphasises multi-party democracy because it seeks to ensure that the widest plurality of political views are given expression, so that no significant political group is excluded from democratic participation.
This constitutional bedrock for the political process in South Africa is in turn replicated and further expanded in the electoral laws. These provide, for instance, for a proportional representation electoral system wherein “one person, one vote” means exactly that; every vote counts. (In other types of systems some votes go to waste). PR electoral processes also encourage the proliferation of a wide variety of political parties giving expression to every political view and ideology that our richly diverse nation holds.
In practice every national parliamentary seat represents just under 40 000 voters and they deserve proper representation. The moral implication of the constitutional and legal framework is obvious. Political parties cannot simply exist for the sake of existence; they must serve those who voted for them.
The scale of modern politics places many demands on political parties. Just the sheer scope of running a national election campaign is staggering: Millions of voters, across nine provinces, eleven languages, and highly diversified lifestyles. The cost of reaching these voters, physically or indirectly through advertising, runs into the millions. And this is just the business of getting into office once every five years.
The real business of political parties, namely to represent and promote the interests of their voters, happens between elections. No political party that takes it mandate seriously can afford not to spend millions more on constituency offices, policy development and improved parliamentary work.
Thus political parties require funding.
None of this is inherently bad provided that two very important principles for political party funding are stringently upheld. These are: firstly, that political party funding is equitable; and secondly, that political party funding is transparent.
Recognising the importance of funding for political parties, the law provides that the taxpayer funds political parties that are represented in Parliament and the Legislatures, i.e. parties with proven support receive funding.
Equitable funding for political parties is easily achieved because every party has an equitable share of the parliamentary seats based on their proportional share of the national vote. Equitable funding simply takes the largest portion of taxpayer funding for political parties and divides it proportionally among the political parties.
This entire scheme is based on the number of seats that each party was given by the electorate. And the entire scheme goes awry when floor-crossing happens. Because floor-crossing entitles an individual public representative to take his/her seat with them to another party, they also take the funding that comes with that seat.
This is essentially a double blow to the original party and its voters. Firstly, they lose the seat; the skills and funding invested in that seat. And secondly they also lose the funding required to run constituency offices and operate in Parliament and the Legislatures.
On both these counts the smaller political parties will obviously be far more negatively affected by floor-crossing than the ruling party. For example, a party with three MPs lose a third of their funding when one MP defects, whilst a party with 270 MPs would lose only 0.37% of their funding when one MP defects. This is not even taking into account the fact that the 10% threshold for floor-crossing and the promise of patronage effectively protects the ruling party from ever suffering such a loss.
To add insult to injury parties can be launched with floor-crossing without ever having taken part in an election. These parties get seats and funding from the taxpayer. One-man or one-woman parties immediately increase their personal salaries because they become automatically entitled to the additional salary of a party leader. The system also allows for such a person to cross to their own party in the year after an election, and then cross to another party in the year before the next election; thereby completely avoiding ever having to face the electorate and prove their true political viability. The average voter could be forgiven their cynicism about politicians when this sort of political lottery occurs and they are still expected to fund it with their hard-earned taxes.
This is a scenario that no doubt pleases the ruling party, and to an extent the DA, because they can rest assured that even though they might not always gain seats that the electorate didn’t entrust to them, the overall effect will be to reduce the ability of their opponents to challenge them in Parliament or the elections. In a masterly exercise of moral gymnastics even the DA is now realising that the system disadvantages them as well; so now they proclaim their opposition to floor-crossing! Meanwhile the ANC will continue to portray floor-crossing as an expression of shifts in the political landscape; which is so far removed from reality that it is laughable. Inevitably the day will come when the ANC suffers from floor-crossing with the concomitant threat to the stability of Government. They will then have to enter elections with severely reduced funding. I would like to hear their response then when we trot out this drivel about it “reflecting a shift in the political landscape”.
The bottom-line is that the equitable funding of political parties disappears once floor-crossing occurs.
Transparency in party political funding
Political party funding is especially problematic where secret donations and funding can unfairly advantage one party over another, and in the process give faceless donors a greater say in the party’s policies than its members and voters.
The need for transparency is nowhere more apparent than in the so-called Oilgate scandal. Here is a classic case of faceless individual that serves on the ruling party’s policy-making structures and who secretly funds the ruling party to the tune of millions of Rands. His largesse came at a time when the ANC was experiencing financial troubles and desperately needed funding to fight a national election campaign. The question then remains: What did his funding buy him, or alternatively, what favour was he repaying? Surely, if the entire matter was above-board there wouldn’t be any need for all this secrecy?
The entire saga is elevated to an even more unsavoury level by the fact that the Oilgate funding originated from the taxpayer. Taxpayers paid R30 million for a product that was worth R15 million, and the ANC received a handsome R11 million for its own election coffers.
Transparency in political party funding is especially important for this reason: the less transparency there is, the more likely it is that the ruling party will receive disproportionately more funding than other parties from people hoping to influence government policy.
The current funding of political parties in South Africa, and hence the proper functioning of multi-party democracy, is not adequate or properly administered. Equitable funding and transparent funding are benchmarks that have not been achieved. In fact, the past few years have seen a decline in the adherence to these principles.
The warning bells have been going off for quite some time now: multi-party democracy is under threat. It is therefore no wonder that we see an increase in voter apathy as well as violent and spontaneous protests from sections of the electorate who feel marginalised eleven years into democracy.
The founding objective of multi-party democracy is to ensure that no group of citizens feel marginalised; it is simply inconceivable that voter apathy and violent protests would occur if these people felt that there were parties that represented their views and concerns. With a dozen established political parties on the political landscape representing all conceivable ideologies, these people still shun democratic processes. The reasons are simple: firstly, they have lost faith in the ruling party and no party with views that they support have reached them. And secondly, they don’t see any value in voting for an opposition party that face regular threats to its parliamentary representation and funding. The subliminal message from the ruling party to these voters seems to be: if you don’t vote for us we will ensure that your vote is worthless.
For smaller political parties these factors constitute very large obstacles to overcome. Naturally, we will persevere despite these constraints, but one cannot help but wonder at the unnecessary harm being done to the depth and vitality of political debate in this country by inequitable and unfair political party funding.
As it is, the ruling party taps into state resources during election campaigns, for instance by using Airforce helicopters to ferry ANC Ministers to areas where they will address election rallies. Whilst people like Joel Netshitenze can use his Government position to promote the ANC. Strategically timed “imbizos” are little more than glorified ANC election rallies and praise-singing events. On top of this the public broadcaster is plumbing new depths in pro-ANC news coverage.
The abuse of state resources for ruling party electioneering further distorts the already inequitable state of political party funding. One hopes that sanity will prevail, and that especially the campaign of IDASA on party funding, will result in a better funding framework.