Illustration: DOROTHY KGOSI
Illustration: DOROTHY KGOSI

If the aim of the public protector was to reveal the ANC’s worst-kept secret about presidential contestations and smoke out contributors to one of the candidates at the party’s 2017 Nasrec national conference, she has been remarkably successful.

According to her office, the banking information on the list of donors, beneficiaries and transactions came into its possession legitimately. It is not clear though where e-mail exchanges, which according to the presidency were illegally obtained, were sourced from. Some of these have now been leaked to the media and were splashed in The Sunday Independent, leading to speculation about the intentions of the sources of some of the information, and the office of the public protector itself.

Curiously, the authors of said article include two of the troupe of journalists who fed us the story about a “rogue unit” at the SA Revenue Service (Sars) while they were still in the employ of a rival publication. Their previous employer long ago apologised for the articles, which were presumably planted to justify the repurposing and destruction of Sars.

The “rogue unit” story helped lay the basis for the demolition of a world-class revenue collector, and SA is still smarting from the effects of that campaign. Interestingly, some of these journalists also led the crusade around the so-called Cato Manor “death squad”, which has now unravelled in the courts.

We are all left to wonder about the objectives of the latest campaign. The evidence from the judicial commissions on state capture and Sars suggests malevolence of the worst kind.

If the aim of the public protector was to embarrass the CR17 campaign and, through this, inject into public debate reflections on the funding of intraparty contestations, she has done quite well. In part, this is because it is easy to develop a narrative of “capture by private interests” from leaks such as these, irrespective of detailed explanations and the track record of the post-Nasrec incumbent.

But are these “remarkable successes” real or imaginary? Lest we forget, the core issue under investigation was not about any of these matters. As the title of the public protector’s report suggests, it was about “an improper relationship between the president and African Global Operations (AGO, formerly known as Bosasa)”. Without detracting from the right of the protector to expand an investigation, the essence of this case was about clarifying how a misleading question in parliament led to a misleading answer. This the president later acknowledged and corrected.

As speculation swirls, a legitimate discussion has arisen about funding political activities and transparency. “We need to know who is the highest bidder,” said political analyst Ralph Mathekga in the Sowetan of August 12, “…because money buys favours.” It may well be that, as a matter of principle, to avoid what the public protector refers to as “the risk of some sort of state capture by those donating these monies”, there should be transparency around any political donations. The Political Party Funding Act was introduced precisely to help address this problem.

But does this necessarily mean that all political donations are meant to, and do in fact, buy favours? Assuming the leaked list of CR17 donors is accurate, it seems to contain names of people who were profoundly concerned about the danger of state capture. Most of these individuals were openly involved in the public campaign on how to revitalise the integrity of the state, and identified with Ramaphosa’s campaign platform on this issue as well as the need to reignite economic growth. In this instance, there was a substantive commonality of interest, in the manner that broad fronts with minimum areas of agreement have been forged over the ages.

So, no new news here, except that some of the donors may have preferred to remain anonymous. How to resolve this issue of anonymity for the period before the party funding act came into force — finding the balance between what is interesting to the public and the public interest — is a matter that requires ongoing reflection across the board.

The CR17 team has sought to explain how the funds were raised, how they were used and accounted for, and the intricacies of Ramaphosa’s involvement. This, they assert, included an explicit understanding that no favours would derive from making the contributions. Further, in line with the finding of the parliamentary ethics committee in the case of the leader of the DA during his own campaign, they argue that there was no personal benefit and therefore no obligation to declare.

There is now a temptation on the part of some within the ANC to come up with donor lists relating to the other Nasrec presidential candidates, with social media in overdrive. Besides the danger of self-mutilation at the instance of external forces, splashing mud does not address the fundamental issue of how to manage internal political contestations — let alone the fundamental national challenges of higher rates of investment, job creation and poverty reduction.

At its recent meeting the ANC national executive committee (NEC) agreed to review internal electoral contestations, including “rules and regulations for lobbying and funding of individual campaigns for leadership”. While recent experiences have much to do with this decision, the organisation does acknowledge that this tendency started to grip national conference campaigns in the build-up to the 2007 Polokwane conference. Since then it has become standard fare, and the organisation has lost its innocence on this matter.

The practice had been brewing in sub-national and some league structures even before then. At the extreme end of the scale are the observations the ANC has made about actual vote-buying at conferences. In some instances, public resources are deployed in such activities. For instance, there was recently an allegation — which in 2018 drew the attention of the Hawks — of branch delegates in Maluti-a-Phofung being employed as general workers to support a particular slate at the Nasrec conference.

It is against the background of practices that evolved over more than a decade that those members who were seeking to restore the integrity of the ANC in the build-up to Nasrec had to agonise: would it be possible to assume leadership of the organisation and turn it around without open campaigning and resources? Was it going to be possible to detoxify the organisation in the medium to long term without using, at the immediate and tactical level, some dose of toxicity?

This is water under the bridge. As the NEC statement suggests, the question now is how to deal with the challenge of money politics going forward.

The starting point in this regard is whether the Political Party Funding Act provides for internal party contestations. Were the legislators aiming to address this matter when they included provisions that no “person or entity may deliver a donation to a member of a political party other than for party political purposes” and, inversely, that a “member of a political party may only receive a donation … on behalf of the party”?

Even if this may not have been the case, these assertions can form a basis around which regulations on support for any candidate in any political contestation can be formulated. Or the law itself may need to be amended to take into account internal party contestations.

The public protector has been found by the courts to have got many fundamental things wrong; the strongest censure was recently delivered by the Constitutional Court in the form of personal punitive costs. There may yet be serious consequences for her. But on the issue of funding in internal party contestations, perhaps we need to cut her some slack. She seems to have blundered her way into becoming an unconscious tool of history.

• Netshitenzhe is executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute and a member of the ANC NEC. He writes in his personal capacity.