Democratic Alliance trade and industry spokesman Wilmot James. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Democratic Alliance trade and industry spokesman Wilmot James. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

IF A "publicity stunt" brings us closer to challenging the secret and toxic link between money and politics here, we need many more.

Supporters of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, have dismissed as a "stunt" the call by his opponent for the DA’s leadership, Wilmot James, that Maimane disclose the funders of his campaign.

They say their candidate will comply with the DA’s rules, which state money for internal campaigns must be declared to the party rather than the public because only DA members vote in its internal elections, which implies that citizens have no stake in the outcome.

This is typical of how most parties fend off demands that they and the politicians who belong to them disclose their funding. The claim that it is none of voters’ business is strange: the winner of this election will be the leader of the opposition, which is a very public post.

Internal DA elections decide who will be premier of the Western Cape and mayor of some municipalities — there is nothing private about that. The citizenry is affected by the outcome and so has a right to know who gave the candidates what. There is an even greater reason to know who funds African National Congress politicians, as they hold many more public offices. Who funds all parties and politicians is very much the public’s business. Politicians who don’t want to disclose funding claim that donors would not give if they knew their names would be revealed — and would certainly not give to opposition parties because they would fear reprisals from the government.

But, in countries that do force parties to disclose their funders, people with money have not stopped giving — some even like to publicise their donations.

Where people want secrecy, it is fair to ask whether they don’t want it known that they are buying influence. A government determined to punish opposition donors would make sure that it found out who was giving: disclosure protects opposition donors because, if they are penalised, it establishes a clear link between the donation and the punishment and could enable them to sue.

Some academics claim that rules forcing disclosure are pointless because parties and politicians will find ways to misuse them. The same could be said about any law, but no one suggests Parliament should therefore stop passing them. This argument also implies that things could get worse if there are rules, which is hard to fathom.

The link between money and politics remains the biggest threat to democracy in SA. This is true in many societies — it is truer in a country in which, because there is limited room for advancing in the private sector, political office often becomes the vehicle through which people seek to get on in the world.

Our history makes attempts to use wealth to influence politics inevitable in our country and many of our political ills can be traced to it.

The absence of any laws forcing donors to disclose funding creates great opportunities for the moneyed to buy politicians, ensuring that the government does what they want, not what the country needs.

Politicians will often do just about anything to get into top positions, where they will become attractive to those looking to buy influence; this poisons politics.

The money-politics link may also help private interests who undermine the government by hooking up with like-minded officials at the public’s expense.

It is hard to see how a law forcing politicians and parties to tell us where their funds come from could make this worse — it is easy to see why it may make it better, particularly if citizens’ organisations use it to demand disclosure.

James may have challenged Maimane to reveal his funding because he is behind in the contest and wants to boost his campaign. But pressure for much-needed political changes often builds because it is tactically useful to politicians.

What is important is that, for the first time, a politician in a major party has made the dark world of secret donations to public office holders a political issue. If that creates a momentum that prompts others to make the same demand, we may see real pressure for the rules controlling political funding that we so badly need.

Whatever reason pushed this issue into the mainstream debate, we need it to stay there. We cannot build a strong democracy if money matters in politics more than what the people want — and politics is often about linking up with money rather than serving the country.

The disclosure James has demanded should be required by law.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

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