EDITORIAL: Ramaphosa’s donors — ANC own goal
The ANC is now having to deal with numbskull conspiracy theories because it failed to embrace a regime of transparency around political donations two decades ago
If the cliché is true that a country gets the best government that money can buy, then SA should be roaring ahead. The leaked e-mails, exposing the funders of Cyril Ramaphosa’s 2017 ANC presidency bid, show that there is no shortage of individuals eager to put their wallet on the line for better governance.
Among the donors, apparently, were Johnny Copelyn, CEO of HCI; Absa’s former CEO Maria Ramos; and the Oppenheimer family.
But these revelations, because they were delivered in the wrappings of "leaks" rather than through proper disclosure, have spawned wild conspiracies and lies about who "captured" Ramaphosa. The reality is, you can’t have a modern political system without access to lots of cash.
Donald Trump, says The Washington Post, raised $335m for his 2016 US presidential campaign; Hillary Clinton raised $623m for hers. The fact is, every election demands these resources — and to think otherwise is naive in the extreme.
But to suggest this amounts to "capture" of the sort that took place when Gupta family members used their friendship with then president Jacob Zuma to divert state resources into their pockets, even allegedly nominating ministers, is to wilfully distort the facts. In Ramaphosa’s case, there has been no evidence that this happened.
Potentially, if those funders were to start getting lucrative contracts under suspicious circumstances, then you could begin to make the case. But the mere fact of donations, sadly for Julius Malema’s party, isn’t evidence of capture.
However, this raises the more crucial point: the ANC is now having to deal with these numbskull conspiracy theories precisely because it failed to embrace a regime of transparency around political donations two decades ago.
In 2005, the nonprofit Institute for a Democratic SA (Idasa) lost a high court bid to compel SA’s parties, including the ANC, to disclose their funding.
Judith February, who worked at Idasa then, wrote: "At the time the ANC undertook to lead on the matter in parliament … That this never happened is a sad indictment of the ANC. With hindsight it was a mistake to take the ANC at its word." Without this transparency, February wrote, you have secrecy, which "only breeds mistrust and an environment ripe for corruption".
This is the environment the ANC created, with connivance from the DA and the other parties that stuck their heads in the sand.
This week, Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said there was nothing surprising in Ramaphosa’s donor list. But Habib said it did show that "all parties, including those funded by tobacco smugglers, should immediately declare their donors".
This is the only way, he said, that voters can find out who they’re voting for. In the US laws were passed in 1974 (after the Watergate scandal) to compel disclosure.
In his book Raising the Bar, Songezo Zibi says details of party funders should be made available by the Independent Electoral Commission. "The funders should declare whether they have received any government contracts in the preceding year to 18 months."
Earlier this year, the new Political Party Funding Act was signed into law, which compels disclosure of those who donate more than R100,000 to political parties. It’s a solid first step — but it does nothing to compel disclosure when it comes to individual politicians.
Barack Obama, who received $731m in donations for his 2012 re-election campaign, has often talked of money being "the original sin of politics".
But if it’s a necessary evil, the least we can do is ensure proper transparency around donations. Let’s hope the ANC has learnt its lesson this time.