In a historic ruling on Thursday, the Constitutional Court ordered that political parties’ private funders be disclosed to the public. This information, the court ruled, is crucial for a voter to make an informed decision at the ballot box.
“Lack of transparency on private funding provides fertile and well-watered ground for corruption or the deception of voters,” reads the majority judgement. “Only when transparency and accountability occupy centre stage before, during and after the elections may hope for a better tomorrow be realistically entertained.”
Reading this judgement leads one to believe that the court has been waiting for some time to rule on the matter. This need for transparency did not arise on the back of technological advancements, and while it might be underlined by a perceived surge in widespread public sector corruption, the court could have come to the same conclusion had the matter been heard ten years ago.
Political behaviour is far more telling than political theory. So when a government suggests firearms for teachers when learners plead for stricter gun laws amid unprecedented school shootings, the influence of funders become significantly clearer.
Parties spend endless hours – and money – to convince voters that they have their interest at heart. But political parties look after themselves first and foremost. That is because it would become increasingly difficult to communicate with your constituency, take opponents to court, or organise a rally without any serious financial backing.
In a country where donors have been allowed to hide under the cover of darkness, any and all political decisions, and philosophies by a given party could potentially be reduced to “that’s what the donors want”.
But the question of transparency goes far beyond political parties alone, and even money.
The Constitutional Court was very clear that “the proper exercise of the right to vote is largely dependent on information”. But should that information be limited to party campaigns, manifestos and now, a list of financial backers alone? This question should surely apply to what the incumbents have been up to.
As the Justices were gathered in Johannesburg to hand down their judgement, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) released a report into the Gauteng Health Department. It fingered Brian Hlongwa in a R1.2 billion fraud and corruption scandal. This is not an extraordinary case, so why is it so important?
The alleged crimes were committed more than a decade ago, and the central figure, Hlongwa, has not been removed from office, rather, he currently serves as the ANC’s Chief Whip in the Gauteng legislature. Even worse, the report was given to former president Jacob Zuma in March 2017 and nothing was done about it. Even worse, the report only saw the light of day after non-governmental organisations asked the court to force the SIU to make the report public.
There have been four elections (2 general; 2 local) since Hlongwa allegedly raided the Health Department’s coffers and two elections since the SIU was tasked to investigate. This is a public representative elected to his position during the 2014 general elections – four years after the SIU started investigating. Was this not the crucial information that voters needed to make an informed decision at the ballot box? Is the harbouring by the ANC of an alleged criminal, hidden from the public, not vital when voters return to the ballot box in less than a year’s time?
While the true character of the ANC would likely not have been exposed had it been forced to immediately publicize the report, one could equally argue that looters might not currently hold public office had it been.
There is a fine and crucial line between what should be in the public sphere and what should remain hidden. But should alleged corruption by the State Security Agency’s boss be allowed to hide behind “Top Secret” stamps and claims of national security? Should questionable financial conduct by a sitting president be hidden from public view because, ‘Sars cannot disclose any individual’s tax affairs’? Should any public servant or politician’s crimes remain secret because ‘the information is sensitive’?
Why is it that South Africa does not have any form of a declassification program when an agency such as the CIA has released documents as recent as the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound? What is the so-called disclosure statute of limitations for crimes by the state? Or even the private sector? It makes no political sense whatsoever to give the state such a monopoly and the public should not have to approach a court to access such information. Secrecy is the breeding ground of corruption, and as things stand, there’s an abundance of dark cradles.
“Public office is so important that it is only to be ascended to by those who have been properly examined and found worthy to represent the electorate. And that may only be so with the benefit of information,” said the court, adding, “Without it, ‘the ability of citizens to make responsible political decisions and participate meaningfully in public life is undermined’.”