Ministers for sale
“WE use our political leadership to raise funds because they are the best product we have to sell.” Not Thabo Mbeki nor ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe, but a senior member of the Australian Labor Party last year. As the reputable Melbourne Age newspaper reported in May 2006: “This month alone, Labor’s chief fundraising arm, Progressive Business, has four senior Victorian ministers available to the business community for a fee… Sound familiar? Clearly, the ANC’s so-called Progressive Business Forum (PBF) is as unoriginal as it’s controversial. But is it disreputable? What’s wrong with selling access, especially in such an ostensibly open and transparent way?
Anyone can join, the ANC says. So what’s the problem? In the US and the UK, selling access to powerful government decision-makers at lavish dinners organised by political parties is old hat. Well before one considers these primary questions, let’s first dispel the idea that just because the practice happens elsewhere it’s not unsavoury.
South Africa must decide whether it’s ethical or sensible to allow the incumbent ruling party to take further advantage of its incumbency by selling access to Government ministers and officials for private gain (the coffers of the party). Or would we prefer to import our ethics from Australia or America where a close alignment between business and political interests is par for the course?
Whichever way you look at the issue, it represents a headache for business leaders and boards of directors. Some are increasingly disinclined to fund political parties in South Africa – or, indeed, anywhere. It’s interesting to discover the majority of London- or New York-listed multinationals now have general policies prohibiting party donations. It’s got them into such hot water in so many different countries that the parent companies are with growing resolve prescribing to local subsidiaries in order to protect the reputation of the primary brand, whether it’s Anglo American, BP or Murray Roberts.
But this is not the answer either. Until a social consensus is reached about the rules of the game that might permit a serious increase in public funding, political parties are going to continue to rely heavily on corporate donations.
Some SA corporates have chosen creative, transparent solutions. Others prefer the cloak and dagger style – and risk to reputation – of secret donations, hoping no doubt that they will be able to prise some material benefit out of Government in return. Indeed, there are some especially unsavoury rumours floating around that the process of awarding Government tenders is increasingly linked to the size of the donation to the ANC. In the absence of any regulation or transparency, it’s impossible to tell. Citizens can’t hold their government to account and CEOs can’t tell whether they are losing business on merit or because they are being outmanoeuvred by dodgy donations from competitors.
Clearly, another category of companies have succumbed to the allure of the PBF, fearing that to not join might leave them out of a lucrative loop. Probably there is some sort of overlap between the secret donors and the secret membership of the PBF. After all, good business is about spreading risk, so why not double insure yourself?
It’s time that organised business stepped up to the plate. It complains often and loudly about the unfair competition that corrupt State practices produce. Is complicity with dodgy funding schemes really in the long-term interests of business or is there a more principled path to take?
Now is the time for a considered response. New standards must be set for the future. Corporate SA must decide what sort of party funding system it thinks will deliver the stable political and economic conditions most likely to deliver prosperity for all. • Calland heads Idasa’s Economic Governance Programme. Idasa’s Corporate Guide to Political Party Donations will be launched in March.