THE falling out between Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille and the proprietors of The New Age newspaper has shone fresh light on the relationships between money and politics in South Africa. As the electoral vulnerability of the African National Congress (ANC) grows, resources of one kind or another will become key instruments in the battle for voters.
Party funding proposals on their way to the Cabinet will recommend bumping up public funding to all parties. They will probably, however, centre on the idea of "transparency" with which liberals have been self-destructively besotted.
Transparency, as Zille observed earlier this week, is in fact a problem mostly for the opposition. "If FNB (First National Bank) got roasted and almost lost its government contracts because of its ‘oppositional stance’, you can imagine what would happen to individuals or companies who donate funds to the opposition". She means companies that are seen to donate to the opposition, of course. ANC leader Jacob Zuma recently observed that companies that openly align themselves with the ANC tend to flourish.
The movement even has a Progressive Business Forum to serve as a conduit for those companies that wish to take advantage of this allegedly adventitious convergence between political affiliation and financial good fortune.
Businessmen who have prospered by securing provincial tenders or government licences are enjoined to donate a share of their profits to the governing party. State-sponsored transparency will be good for the ANC because it will help its treasurer-general ensure that tithes to Luthuli House are actually paid. It will also make it harder for provincial factions to accumulate war chests.
Parastatals such as Eskom and Telkom already donate heaps of money quite openly to the ANC through their vast public relations budgets.
For these reasons, the ANC is happier than the DA to apply the principle of transparency.
It could even invent a new (and no doubt impartial) regulatory agency to poke around in party finances and to preclude the concealment of donations or their diversion to proxy recipients elsewhere in civil society.
Zille this week related a dreamlike tale about her interactions with a donor who happened to work for a Gupta-owned company. The donor asked her to collect a cheque at a palatial residence that happened to belong to the Gupta family. On her return to the office, a letter of thanks was drafted to that family for acting as host. Zille handed the credibility of the DA to the Guptas on a R300,000 plate.
Zille does not like to admit she has made a mistake. But her anti-Gupta fusillades about donor sponsorship of media or other civil society events could come back to haunt the opposition.
A new funding regulator could easily be mandated to control the "diversion" of funds to alleged party proxies, such as media houses, think-tanks and civil society organisations.
As electoral politics heats up, both parties’ incentives to mobilise resources in the provinces they govern will grow. Political appointees will be pressured to divert resources from state agencies to their parties; payments from tender-dependent business leaders will be further encouraged; and public resources, such as advertising budgets, social grants, and the energies of public sector workers, are likely to be more routinely abused.
The DA has also been rather decorously playing in the mud, whereas the ANC is already up to its neck. A proliferation of party-linked companies that do business with the state is creating inefficiency and even paralysis in the public sector. It is also tearing the movement apart. The ANC has therefore been obliged to develop a credible, if ethically unappealing, plan to secure its interests; the DA, so far, has not.
The parties need to hammer out a common strategy for curtailing the malevolent influence of resources in politics. As they do so, they should take care not to destroy the preconditions for healthy democratic competition.
• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.
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