Are we inching nearer to knowing where political parties get their money? If so, will we be expected to pay for the privilege? A resolution passed at the ANC's Mangaung conference suggests that laws that control money's impact on politics may be on the way.
It says that public funding of parties should be expanded "to promote and support democracy". This change "will be accompanied by full financial accountability and transparency by political parties, including regulation of private financing of political parties".
Much of this, if it were to become law, would tackle one of the most serious threats to democracy here - money's influence on politics. Money is perhaps the biggest threat to democratic governments throughout the world. Democracy is supposed to give everyone an equal say in decisions, but if there are no controls on where parties and politicians get their money, people with cash can get governments to do what those who give the money want, not what the voters want.
This is a huge problem here. Given our inequalities, owners of wealth have many opportunities to win the favour of politicians. Since the early 1990s, links between sections of business and politicians have been a serious problem in our politics. This is why Cosatu called for lifestyle audits that would tell us how politicians live; this might give pointers to where they get their money.
Funding for parties is also a problem, particularly since there are no laws forcing parties to say where they get their money. Nor do we have any rules that limit how much money anyone can give to a party. When the Dalai Lama was refused a visa, some reports suggested that the governing party was eager to please the Chinese government because it received funding from it. The laws - or lack of them - ensure that we have no idea whether that is true. Recently, the DA seems to have received funds from the same business sources that some of its supporters accuse of unduly influencing the ANC.
Mamphela Ramphele's "party platform", Agang, has been criticised for not disclosing its funding.
So money's influence on politics is not a problem within one party only - it is a feature of our system and will remain so until we start using the law to do something about it.
Parts of the ANC resolution promise to do that. If implemented, they would force parties to disclose their donors and how much they give, which would be a step forward.
The DA and some commentators insist that forcing parties to disclose donors would undermine democracy because business people only give money to opposition parties when they know the donation is secret; if they gave openly, they would be penalised by the government. But, a while ago, AngloGold Ashanti made it known that it was promoting a multiparty democracy by giving to all major parties. It used a formula that favoured the opposition. Some other businesses followed its lead. None have been "punished" by the government.
A government undemocratic enough to punish companies for funding the opposition would have enough control of the intelligence services to know who was giving to whom.
Openness would then be smaller parties' best protection. Without it, the government could freeze their donors out without anyone knowing that it was because of their opposition sympathies. If it was known who they were funding, it would be obvious to all why they were being made to pay.
The resolution also suggests that funding would be regulated. This could mean that measures will limit how much anyone can give to a party, the most effective way of ensuring that money does not undermine democracy.
But the resolution would also worsen a problem. It says that more money should be given to parties from public funds. The ANC is keen to increase the amount parties get from public money - its treasurer-general, Zweli Mkhize, recently complained that funding from the State was "woefully inadequate".
In theory, more money for parties should strengthen democracy, both by giving them more resources and by reducing their dependency on wealthy donors. But there is no evidence anywhere that parties which are given more government money lose interest in private donations - parties always behave as though their need for money is limitless. And, if the rules on public funding of parties, which are in force now stay, the ANC will gain at the expense of other parties because how much parties get depends on how many votes they won in the last election.
If the ANC insists on increased public funding for parties without other changes, it will be using citizens' money to give itself a bigger advantage. Increased public money helps democracy only if it is accompanied by laws controlling private funding.
Also, using public funds to support parties will only strengthen democracy if the rules are changed. Giving in proportion to the last election result makes no allowance for the possibility that parties may lose support between elections. A way would be needed to allow citizens to decide which party their taxes would support. One way is to allocate money to parties in proportion to the number of people who give them money (not the amount they give) because this would be a measure of their support.
The fact that the ANC passed a resolution promising controls on how money is used to influence politics does not mean that the law will be changed: there are powerful interests who don't want the public to know where parties get their money, so no law may be passed.
But, if it is planning to go ahead with reform, far more is needed than an increase in public funding that will benefit the governing party more than its rivals. If changes are to strengthen democracy, they need to be part of a package that makes it more likely that political decisions respond to the voice of the people, not the power of money.
- Professor Steven Friedman is the director for the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University/University of Johannesburg. This article was published on The New Age.