Concourt ruling on party funding good for democracy
Nkosi is a public relations advisor and the founder of the @NationsVoiceZA initiative.
The ruling by the Constitutional Court that voters have a right to know who funds political parties may well prove to be one of the best things for our democracy. The ruling could well be the first step towards reducing the influence of money in our politics.
Currently coverage of election campaigns is based more on optics than issues. The party that can fill stadiums and provide the most captivating pictures tends to get more coverage than the party that struggles to fill a small community hall, for example.
The problem with media coverage based on optics is that the cost of running elections skyrockets, which means that parties must raise more money for show. The money is then spent on things that provide the best optics. One branded T-shirt costs upwards of R50 and you can imagine how much a party that fills a stadium with yellow, blue or red shirts must spend across the country for the duration of its campaign.
Added to the problem is the fact that the majority of political party supporters are poor and can’t afford to buy the branded shirts themselves. Their financial position also means that parties must bear the cost of transporting the supporters to the venues. In some cases, people are bused from as far as 200km away to be present at a campaign rally so that parties can have the optics that the media, especially television, prioritise.
Once party supporters are at the venue they have to be fed. If you do the calculations, you will see that each person attending a campaign rally can cost the political party concerned upwards of R200. There are also the hidden costs such as the stipends and transport money for organisers and volunteers, and campaign paraphernalia.
On average, a rally for 10 000 people can easily cost R5 million. With campaign rallies in all regions over a period of several weeks, a party seeking to win power must have a budget of at least R500 million.
Undoubtedly, funders will be more reluctant to “donate” to political parties if there is a possibility that they will be revealed. Such revelations may cause a variety of problems for donors. It’s a common view that some funders donate dirty money to political parties. Others would fear the scrutiny that would follow the revelations about how they make their money, even if it was through legitimate means.
There is also the genuine concern on the part of legitimate donors that they could suffer reprisals from the party that wins the election if they support a party strongly opposed to the winner. At any rate, many donors run corporates and businesses that have politically diverse clienteles and employees. The risk of exposure will most certainly dissuade many from making donations.
We did not need the Constitutional Court to tell us that some funders give money to political parties with the hope that the parties will return the favours once they are in power. Those that do not have a chance to wrest state power tend to return favours through fighting for their funders’ interests in parliament. Inevitably, special interests trump the interests of voters in the long run.
This state of affairs clearly leads to the parties that have greater chances of winning elections raising more money, followed by the parties that have strength in provinces and municipalities. Provincial governments and municipalities wield great power and have massive budgets to appease their funders.
To support our developing democracy, the private sector must openly fund political parties in a manner that supports democracy as opposed to a political party of their choice. Several years ago the Absa Group made donations to all political parties with a presence in parliament. Each party received funding proportionate to the number of seats it had won in the previous election.
The system was not without criticism but at least it was fair and open to public scrutiny. Many smaller parties often remarked that Absa’s donations were their saving grace. This practice needed to be replicated by other companies, and that can still be done.
The biggest change to the way election campaigns are conducted has to be effected by the news media. News organisations wield a lot of power. Every election strategy has the news media at its centre. That is simply because the media is the most effective conduit to voters. Parties and candidates that get more media coverage tend to do better in elections.
The advent of 24-hour television news is changing the way we consume news. The competition between the three players in that space benefits political parties perhaps more than it does viewers and voters. Political parties, especially the big three – the ANC, DA and EFF, have found a clever way to get free airtime for their rallies and media conferences.
As the news channels battle to fill space with content, live coverage of events becomes an easy and cheap solution. When parties and politicians get such coverage they say and do the darnedest things often without being held accountable or fact-checked. The more a politician has outrageous things to say, the more coverage they get and the better their chances at the polls.
Until recently, most South Africans were concerned about corruption and the impunity that accompanied it. With a new administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa there is a growing belief that corruption and impunity is being tackled.
Next on most voters’ agenda is the economy and jobs. Voters want to hear more about how parties contesting next year’s elections will grow the economy and create much needed jobs and the development of SMMEs. The media has the power to force parties and their leaders to issue-based debates at town halls and television studios.
These would give voters an opportunity to make their choices on the basis of what party has the best and credible plans to tackle issues that matter to them. This would also call for the media to use knowledgeable analysts and commentators who can interrogate each party’s manifesto and call out useless populist drivel.
Until we make that shift, political campaigns will remain prohibitively expensive and about pointless optics. After a quarter century of our democracy and a slow economy, it is time for election campaigns are run on issues and in a more cost-effective way.