Explainer: SA’s new political party funding law

Until now, political parties were able to keep their funding under wraps, paving the way for corruption. But all that has changed.

By Sarah Evans

Ok, this is a BIG deal. You know how political parties get funding from people that we never find out about? People that could perhaps demand political parties to change their policies to pursue the agendas of their funders? 

Take the ANC, for example. It has reportedly been funded by dodgy companies, like Bosasa, which allegedly got even dodgier contracts… allegedly in a tit-for-tat arrangement. That’s called corruption. But nobody can make sure this stuff is properly investigated because those funding arrangements are legally allowed to be kept secret.

Then there’s the EFF and the DA, who are even more secretive. In fact, the DA has consistently pushed back against attempts to get meaningful political party funding reform in SA, arguing that this will turn off its funders, and potentially destroy the party. It’s a fair(ish) point, but our law, as of 22 January, doesn’t agree. And that’s great news for democracy. Here’s why: 

What happened?

Public interest group My Vote Counts (MVC) lobbied for transparency in political party funding for many years. They took this issue up with the courts, and in 2018, they won. The Constitutional Court ruled that the current legislation was unconstitutional because it didn’t require political parties to declare their funding.

Here’s how this works:

The current legislation is called the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Through that act, anyone can request information from the government, which can only be only denied in certain, specific conditions. That’s to make sure ordinary people know what the government is doing.

In SA, everyone has the right to access information that is held by the state, AND information held by another person that they need to  exercise or protect any other rights. In a nutshell, you have the right to have information that will help you fulfil your other rights. Like, say, the right to vote.

(This is literally in our Constitution. Pretty cool, hey?)

But here’s the rub: how can you exercise your right to vote if you don’t have information about who you’re voting for? That’s the problem pointed out by MVC. If you don’t know who funds your political party of choice, can you really exercise your right to vote? You’re essentially voting blind, which isn’t really very fair.

The Court agreed. It ruled that PAIA had to be fixed, to make sure that anyone running for election (whether they’re an independent candidate or a political party) HAS to declare their funding.

It gets better. The court also found that it’s not fair to expect ordinary people to constantly ask political parties for this info. Parties have to keep records of any funding they get over R100 000, keep those records for at least five years, and release those records on their social media platforms at least four times a year. In two words:more transparency. 

At least two months before an election, their funding has to be out in the open, too.

What now? 

The Court gave Parliament, which makes our laws, some time to fix the wonky law. It did so, and the new and improved law was sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign. He did so on 22 January 2021.

What else?  

Donations from foreign governments or agencies are not allowed. That means the CIA or the dodgy tenderpreneurs can’t try to manipulate in our elections by funding a party they like. (Ok, the CIA is a little far fetched, but you get the picture.)

Every donation, whether it is by a private individual or by an organisation, is capped at R15 million.

When will it come into force?

The act will officially be the law, and parties will have to adhere to it, on April 1. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which runs our elections, is in charge of making sure it is enforced. According to Business Day, the consequence management provisions in the Act – the bits that force political parties to abide by it – will come into effect immediately, the IEC said.

What happens if parties ignore it?

Parties may not like the law, but they have no choice – they have to abide by it. Punishments for breaking the new law include having to pay back the money that was irregularly spent, fines imposed on parties, and even jail sentences of up to five years.

Our take? It’s a HUGE win for ordinary people. And another example of how awesome our Constitution and Constitutional Court are – always entrenching our democratic rights. 

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