In less than four months, in compliance with our Constitution’s injunction that gives “every citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections for any legislative body established in terms of the Constitution” the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will oversee our fifth general election.

In the 2009 general election, when more than 17 million people voted, voting was still a cause for great excitement and hope. Five million more people had registered but didn’t vote possibly because they had already begun to lose faith in political parties.

However, if we are to judge by today’s chatter and clamorous protest, 2009’s non-voters were shy harbingers of the arrival on our shores of a global disaffection with electoral processes. Five years later it seems as if for many the vote has lost its shine.  On radio stations, social media and the streets many voters express cynicism about the power of their vote and its abuse by political parties.  Strikes and service delivery uprisings – at the rate of four a day – have become the real frontline of democratic expression.

According to the IEC this year 25 million people are eligible to vote. Given that we face enormous social distress in almost every area of life an election could not be more timely. Yet, reports and surveys suggest that many people may choose not to register or to vote. In particular, the signs are that many young people are not coming forward to register.

Further, many of those who say they will vote will do so with their hands covering their noses.

At the forefront of the skeptical mind are grave doubts as to whether any of the parties’ policies will change people’s lives for the better, whether a vote given to a political party will narrow inequality, eliminate corruption, lead to sustained investment in schools and clinics – and there is a strong suspicion that it will not.

But not to vote is anti-social and our hard-won democracy is the only game in town. Rather than giving in to pessimism – or falling prey to plump populists who use blame the constitutional system as a distraction for ills and inequalities  they helped to create – there’s one lesson we can take from this. It is time that the voter asserted her rights and began to make politicians and political parties dance to our tune, rather than us continually submitting to the agenda their ad agencies cook for us.

It is time to stop the rot. This article examines one of the places to start: party political funding and the need to upend the old adage that ‘he who pays the piper plays the tune’.

Political parties have been described by the Constitutional Court as “the veritable vehicles the Constitution has chosen for facilitating and entrenching democracy” and the vote as “a badge of dignity and personhood” which says “everybody counts”. An election is when we get our chance to exercise our choice between them.

If only it were as simple as that!

In today’s world the size and source of a political party’s election kitty can be a primary determinant of the outcome of an election. This makes the race for resources a crucial aspect of party political behaviour – it makes the party vulnerable to influences’ other than that of the electorate (ours!) as well as to literal and moral corruption. Which promises a governing party will keeps after it is elected – whether to the electorate or to the invisible people who helped make it electable – is no longer clear cut.

The Constitution in its foresight attempted to head this off by stating that  funding for political parties should be provided for in national legislation “on an equitable and proportional basis.”

To this end Parliament passed the Public Funding of Represented Parties Act in order “to enhance multi-party democracy”. In doing so, as the EFF and Agang may justly complain, it made funding proportional … but forgot the equitable part of the constitutional formula.

Thus, according to the IEC, in 2012/13 Parliament allocated over R108 million to the political parties already represented in Parliament and the provincial legislatures. Of this over R67million went to the ANC and R17m to the DA. All other political parties were left to make do with the remaining R20 million.

This seems like a lot of money – for the big two at least. But in their quinquennial bid for state power parties consider it far from sufficient.

According to respected researcher Hennie van Vuuren in the 2009 national and provincial election parties collected approximately R550 million from private funding sources – compared to ‘only’ R93 million from state funds. This was a five-fold increase on the 1994 elections when R100 million was collected from private sources and R43 million from public funds. In 2014 Van Vuuren suggests that it is not inconceivable that parties may spend upwards of R1billion on trying to get elected.

Where the additional millions come from we do not know – that is a closely guarded and defended secret.

In 2004 the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) made a valiant attempt at a court order that would have required parties to disclose details of all donations above R50,000. They lost partly on the ground that in their receipt of private donations parties are not public bodies. Nonetheless judge Griesel made the point that her judgment did not mean that “political parties should not, as a matter of principle, be compelled to disclose details of private donations made to their coffers.” She seems to have trusted that parliament would see to that.

Nine years later as secret funding has ballooned the question of who funds political parties too has grown as matter of public importance. The faceless organisations and individuals that donate to political parties do so for a private reason. I hazard that most of them invest their money notin order to make multi-party democracy bloom but to try to buy influence.

The result, dear voter, is that what a party manifesto may tell you and what a that party may promise or hint to the people that pay for its pipes is probably very different.

Here lies a troubling paradox, one that threatens to subvert democracy. In their salacious rent-seeking political parties may become a threat to purpose of democracy itself … which is to let the people exercise their will by choosing a government that will execute their wishes.

For how can a voter know a parties’ real intentions if we don’t know what commitments – explicit or implied – they have made to their donors? Would a voter think differently of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) if they knew that they were being funded by a rich landowner or industrialist? What impact did funding from Colonel Gadaffi have on the ANC’s foreign policy in the past or might funding from the Chinese Communist Party have in the future? Who is funding the DA and with what expectations?

Unless a voter has answers to these questions you do not know what you are really voting for.

But if you ask for this information it will probably be in vain. Political parties that are normally at each other’s throats have entered a conspiracy of silence on the issue. A decade ago during the failed court bid by IDASA, the ANC, DA and IFP made promises under oath that “after thorough public investigation and debate” they would introduce legislation in parliament to regulate disclosure. According to the judge they:

professed support for most, if not all, of the principles and values advocated by [IDASA] such as the need for transparency, openness, accountability and the combating of corruption in public life.  The [parties] furthermore support the idea of public debate on the question of private funding of political parties.  

These promises have conveniently withered on the vine.

In my view these are the reasons why voters should make transparency of party political funding a condition for voting for any political party:

“No openness! No vote!” we should declare!

This would not be a frivolous demand for your “badge of dignity” risks being dishonored for a more valuable vote that has been sold to a political party in expectation of a return. That return may be access to cushy well-paid jobs, influence or state resources.

One dollar one vote.

But of greatest concern is the fact that the result of this clearly crooked process will be the election of political parties and their pliant lists whose actions or omissions will have a profound impact on our society’s prospects over the next five years and then for many years to come.

Those we elect have constitutional authority and huge resources to change people’s lives for the better. Alternatively, five more years of failure to abide by the majority’s wishes and follow the Constitution’s multiple clear instructions to address inequality, the quality of public health, the right of our children to quality education or crime will cost a life-time to fix.

The price of political failure is literally tens of thousands of lives.

So go on. Get active. Take ten minutes and write or phone each political party to ask for an answer to this one simple question:

Will you disclose all the sources of your funding above R50,000 as well as the total amount you have budgeted for your election campaign?

Then see what they say!

To help you e-mail addresses for several parties are provided below:

ANC (sngubane@anc.org.za)

COPE (copemedia2014@gmail.com)

DA (leader@da.org.za)

EFF National spokesperson (mbuyiseni@gmail.com)

SACP (info@sacp.org.za)

NFP (zanelemagwaza-nsibi@live.co.za)