Why does no-one seem interested in abuses that threaten democracy except the governing party, which supposedly benefits from the abuse? WHY does no-one seem interested in abuses that threaten democracy except the governing party, which supposedly benefits from the abuse? Probably the most serious threat to South African democracy is the relationship between money and politics.
Often, this problem is reduced to only one of its features — politicians and officials getting their hands on public money. But there is more to the disease, for a job in the government can also be a route to private money. For more than two decades, some in business have assumed that the best way to win the co-operation of politicians is to offer them assets — inevitably, the strategy includes donating to governing parties. Only a few weeks ago, the African National Congress (ANC) said in papers before court that the late Brett Kebble had donated to it in the hope of winning influence.
The damage this does to democracy is obvious: decisions are shaped not by the needs of voters but the interests of people with money. Those who donate do not have to demand something in return — even if the money gets the donor into the inner circle of public decision-makers, it may buy influence at democracy’s expense. It would take great naivety to imagine that spending time with politicians does not offer opportunities to pass self-interest off as public interest.
While the threat to democracy is clear, we have no laws that require political parties to say where they get their money, let alone to regulate the size of donations (since the more donors give, the more influence they have).
Despite this, and despite the fact that corruption is a constant theme in political discussion, little attention has been paid to this issue. A while ago, the democracy-promotion organisation, Idasa, took legal action, unsuccessfully, to compel parties to say where they get their money. But there has been no concerted citizens’ campaign to force them to do this or to regulate donations to prevent them from subverting democracy
Last week, an organisation convened a meeting to discuss the threat to democracy posed by unregulated party funding. The gathering made many of the same points as those of us who argue for full disclosure and regulation of party funding; it agreed that change was needed. What made this remarkable, of course, was that the organisation that held the meeting was the ANC.
The fact that the ANC convened the gathering confirms a point often lost in a debate in which yelling at the governing party now substitutes for reason — that some within the ANC are very worried about money’s effect on politics. They know private money is causing the ANC great damage and that it will be impossible for it to resolve its difficulties unless something is done about it.
Whether anything will be done is not clear. Some politicians benefit from the current free-for-all and they will do what they can to block change. And so, while the meeting shows that those in the ANC who are worried about money’s influence have enough clout to get the issue discussed, it is not at all clear that they have enough muscle to get it to act — the ANC has been talking about money’s effect on politics for five years now but has so far done nothing to address the problem.
Whether the talk leads to action will, therefore, depend on the relative strength within the ANC of those pushing for reform and those who hope to block it.
But the rest of us do not have to stand passively by; action is much more likely if there is a public campaign demanding that we be told where parties get their money and insisting that we need rules to ensure that money does not buy influence. It is more likely too if businesses — and organised business — take this issue more seriously. Despite the tendency to assume that the government is always corrupt and business always pure, it should be obvious that none of this would be a problem if some businesses and business people did not try to buy influence from parties and politicians. It should be equally obvious that change is much more likely if this comes to be seen as a violation of business ethics, since it is so clearly an attempt to gain unfair advantage.
More is at stake for businesses than a display of public-spiritedness. If some in business can get what they want by donating to politicians and parties, all other businesses are obviously disadvantaged. The use of money by some to buy government sympathy degrades the entire business environment and it is within business’s power to prevent this. Businesses and business associations will do themselves and the country a favour if they declare that buying political influence is a violation of business ethics and actively fight against it.
If we are to prevent government decisions being sold to the highest bidder, citizens’ groups and businesses need to take pressure for action to control political funding as seriously as some in the ANC do.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
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