Covert: Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. De Klerk chaired an NP meeting about corporate funds. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Covert: Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. De Klerk chaired an NP meeting about corporate funds. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

One of the greatest threats to democratic politics is the unregulated funding of political parties. This problem persists in contemporary South African politics. Powerful donors rely on a culture of secrecy to conceal their identity from ordinary voters, who might otherwise be outraged at the type of influence that such money can buy.

During apartheid, very little was disclosed about how political parties raised their funds. In the white parliament, it was an open secret that large Afrikaner businesses such as Sanlam and Gencor funded the National Party (NP), and that Anglo American was a supporter of the more liberal opposition.

Oppression delivers paperwork and the NP political machinery was no different. We were speechless when the archivist at the University of the Free State delivered folders marked "National Party donations". In these and other folders are letters of thanks, requests for anonymity, copies of cheques and carefully written receipts to NP donors.

We have identified about 70 individual donations to the NP from 1979 to 1989, ranging from R5,000 to R290,000 (between R40,000 and R2.4m in 2017 terms). The sum of these donations is R4.5m (R43m today).

An important caveat is that the list is not conclusive. In addition, these figures are large relative to the size of election expenditure at the time, which was minuscule in comparison with the money spent on elections today.

We can now reveal evidence of funding provided by Naspers to the NP. Ton Vosloo, Naspers MD, confirmed in writing the company had made a donation of R150,000 (about R1m today) to the NP before the 1987 election. The confirmation is contained in a letter to FW de Klerk at the time of his making a further donation shortly before the decisive white election in September 1989.

Vosloo wrote two letters to De Klerk on August 17, committing Naspers to provide funding to the NP to the value of R290,000 (about R2m today).

Vosloo noted that one of the donations to the Transvaal NP "is a token of loyalty and friendship with the NP in the Transvaal".

He added that "our newspaper Beeld in the Transvaal is your ally and we trust that this formidable combination will wipe out the competition".

Johann Rupert, one of Africa’s wealthiest men, also made at least one donation to the NP in 1989. In August 1989, former NP minister Hendrik Schoeman wrote a letter marked "personal and confidential" to Rupert, at that stage the executive director of Rembrandt.

The letter confirmed following a meeting at which he had been asked for a financial donation to the NP, Rupert had handed R20,000 to De Klerk.

De Klerk said, "Please be assured that we place this delightful gesture in high regard. It is highly appreciated. We are aware that you do not wish to give any publicity to this donation and we will handle it in a confidential manner."

Another noteworthy NP donor was Christo Wiese who, according to Forbes, occupies the fourth position jointly with Rupert on the list of the richest people in Africa.

In a letter to De Klerk in August 1989, minister Kent Durr reported that "on Saturday night I received a call from Mr Christo Wiese of Pepkor, an old friend and supporter of the National Party".

Wiese offered the NP printing to the value of R25,000 from his company Printkor and assured that he would "distribute a further R25,000 at his own discretion to individual candidates with whom he has a personal relationship and whom he would like to help".

At least six payments were made by the Sanlam group, totalling R220,000 (R3.7m today). In 1983, Sanlam chairman Fred du Plessis, who also served on PW Botha’s Defence Advisory Council, wrote to Botha to assure him of his company’s "moral support in carrying out the demanding tasks which rest on his shoulders".

For good measure, Du Plessis threw in a company-branded pocket diary.

Giovanni Mario Ricci, an Italian fraudster and sanctions buster who worked closely with Craig Williamson, also made donations

Botha responded to his friend and indicated that it had been brought to his attention that state-owned corporations were operating in a manner that discriminated against Sanlam.

He intended to remedy this: "I have now given orders that Sanlam and its affiliates are properly considered in the awarding of any business by state-owned enterprises."

Powerful companies involved in the arms trade and arms production also made sure to keep the NP sweet.

Barlow Rand made two payments, in 1987 and 1988, to the value of R100,000 (R800,000 today), duly acknowledged by De Klerk.

Giovanni Mario Ricci, an Italian fraudster and sanctions buster who worked closely with Craig Williamson, also made donations. Ricci, who relied heavily on the government’s covert business, provided the NP with R250,000 in 1987 (R2m today).

Unsurprisingly, Bill Venter and his Altech (Altron) group, which developed important technology for the military including missile systems, made a strong showing among the donors.

As a sign of his appreciation, Venter made a down payment of R10,000 and promised to donate R150,000 in 1982. Venter contributed a generous R200,000 in 1985 (R2.2m today) and again in 1989.

Surprisingly, on the list of donors are numbers of prominent English-speaking business leaders, who are generally regarded as having held a position that was mildly critical of the NP.

These included Bennie Slome, the founder of the Tedelex television rental company, Eric Samson of Macsteel and Louis Shill, founder of the Sage financial group.

Bertie Lubner is on record as having made one donation to the NP of R20,000 in 1982. In a letter on his PG Glass letterhead, Lubner thanked Botha for "a very wonderful evening that we spent with you, charming members of your family and other guests". The businessman also paid special tribute to Botha "for your outstanding leadership of this country".

I asked Lubner about his support for the NP when I interviewed him in January 2016, a few months before his death. He said, "Let me just get my position clear: I made it clear to any government minister, including De Klerk, when I was asked to join the NP … I indicated there were three reasons why not.

"One, the membership card said total national Christian education – how can I as a Jew? Secondly, the whole profile of apartheid is an enigma [anathema] to Jews who have suffered all around the world, particularly in the Holocaust, because of an idea that people are not equal, there is no way I could support that. Thirdly, we needed to start a programme of upliftment, in terms of employment, training, etc in order to make people’s lives better."

In a December 2015 interview with Basil Hersov, I asked him about funding of the NP. He answered with the simple word "never", although he was sure that some people did try to "buy leverage" and encourage reform that way.

The archives reveal that Hersov did in fact make a payment to the NP in 1983, and sent a personal handwritten letter to Botha in October that year. He indicated he was prepared to donate in recognition of Botha’s role in the "further dismantling of the hurtful aspects of discrimination and segregation".

In 2006, investigative researchers revealed the ANC had established a trust, Chancellor House, which was doing business with the government and engaged in fundraising for the benefit of the governing party. We can reveal the NP had a secret front of its own, a company called Projek Republiek (ProRep), established in 1985 to hide the identities of NP donors.

At a Transvaal NP meeting in 1984, chaired by De Klerk, the financial committee proposed "that a company is registered with an eye to donations from corporations that do not want to directly fund the party".

The company was registered in February 1985, with a group of well-connected directors including ministers Hendrik Schoeman, Danie Steyn and Org Marais, all old hands at NP fundraising. Other subsequent directors included Gerhardus Koornhof and Gerhardus Oosthuizen. Both men, once NP MPs, are now firmly ensconced within the ANC caucus. Oosthuizen has been so successful at managing this transition, he has held the position of deputy minister of sport under three presidents, since his appointment by Thabo Mbeki in 2004.

Given the lack of information available, we know little else about the activities of ProRep. However, the NP had several other fundraising initiatives and investments. These included the so-called Club of 50 for the National Party, whose members, it was proposed, would be required to make a R2,000 annual contribution to the party.

This model is not dissimilar to the ANC’s progressive business forum, which is used to court business today. Things do indeed stay the same — and the need for regulating the funding of political parties has never been greater than it is now in a democratic SA.

• This is an edited extract of Van Vuuren’s latest book, Apartheid Guns and Money: A tale of profit, published by Jacana.

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