Those Who Pay The Piper Control The Tune

According to one of the world’s most famous politicians, Frank Underwood “In politics you either eat the baby or you are the baby”. That statement is crucial for us as young South African voters, particularly with the approaching local government elections. The right to vote is not just about putting an ‘X’ on a ballot paper. It is (or should be) much broader than that; it is about critically interrogating our political systems, so as to ensure a stronger, accountable and transparent democracy. If we take such a holistic view on voting and our political system in general, we ensure that we don’t end up becoming blind mice; or the ‘baby’ in Frank Underwood’s analogy.

The filling up of stadia, the number of buses, the number of distributed party t-shirts, the number of artists performing at rallies and television adverts; all these seemed to characterise this year’s election campaigns. But have we ever asked ourselves where all this money comes from? Who is funding our political parties and why? This question was overlooked in the recent ‘state capture’ debate.

I am of the view that it is central to it because those who ascend to state power do so via political parties. Could it be then that it is not only the state that is captured, but our political parties as well? In South Africa political parties are funded by the public via the Independent Electoral Commission. This is governed by the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act (1997). According to this legislation, parties receive an allocated amount which is proportional to their size in the national assembly and provincial legislatures. This form of public funding is universal and most democracies have this model. The problem lies not in this model but in the private donations to political parties by individuals, companies and states.

Private donations are unregulated and are shrouded in secrecy. Not a single party in South Africa discloses its donors (yes even those that preach the transparency gospel). Why not? It is this secret space which undermines our democracy and lays fertile ground for corruption and patronage. Those who make large donations to political parties obviously do so with an expectation of a ‘return on investment’. That return might be a tender, it might be influence, and most dangerously it might be a tool to influence the state not to move towards a certain direction. This in essence means an unemployed 19-year old’s vote and that of a 60-year old multimillionaire party donor will not carry the same weight. This should not be the case, political parties are not businesses and our democracy is not for sale!

 Two organisations have challenged the status quo. First it was the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), and recently My Vote Counts (MVC). Their plea to the Constitutional Court was for parliament to enact legislation to regulate private political donations. On a previous minority judgement Judge Edwin Cameron made the following remarks; 

“The right to vote does not exist in a vacuum. Nor does it consist merely of the entitlement to make a cross upon a ballot paper. It is neither meagre nor formalistic. It is a rich right – one to vote knowingly for a party and its principles and programmes. Voters have the right to vote for a political party, knowing how it will contribute to the country’s constitutional democracy and the attainment of its constitutional goals. Does this include knowing the private sources of political parties’ funding? It surely does.”

What is to be done? Do we burn more schools? Libraries and clinics demanding greater degrees of transparency in our political system? Do we stay away from the polls? Do we spoil our votes? Whatever direction we take, apathy is not and will never be the solution. We have a responsibility and a moral obligation to preserve and to protect our democracy because we are stakeholders in it. Ours is to make sure that we challenge those who want to be ‘steakholders’, and in our quest to achieve all these things we must not make the fundamental mistake of throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

Info: Prince Charles is part of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers’ Network.

ACTIVATE! Change Drivers is a network of more than 2000 young change makers or“Activators” across South Africa who are finding innovative ways to transform their communities and the country as a whole.

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