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The fight to compel political parties to publicly reveal where their private funding comes from is not over yet, says My Vote Counts’ (MVC) campaign coordinator Judith February.

On Wednesday 30 September the Constitutional Court ruled against the bid brought forward by the MVC to compel political parties to publicly disclose where their private funding comes from. This ruling came on the heels of the Unite Against Corruption march, which saw thousands of South Africans marching to the Union Buildings in Pretoria and to Parliament in Cape Town. Marchers at both events handed over a memorandum of demands, which included concrete demands to make public the sources of political party funding, and setting up speedy mechanisms for resolving disputes concerning requests for access to information.

“Wednesday’s anti-corruption march was the start of a movement towards people taking back the power from corrupt politicians and the wealthy and well-connected,” said February, speaking to Corruption Watch.

She said while MVC is disappointed at the court’s judgment, the organisation has not given up. “We are taking advice regarding challenging the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) in the High Court, and the likelihood is that we will find ourselves back in the Constitutional Court.”

MVC argued that Parliament has a constitutional obligation to enact specific legislation to mandate parties to disclose their private funders, in addition to the wide general provisions of PAIA. “The organisation believes that the constitutional right of access to information and the right to vote place a duty on political parties to reveal their sources of funding,” said February.

Judges mixed on ruling

However, the majority judgment of the court found that while the public does have the right to know who funds political parties, MVC should have challenged the failure of PAIA to allow for the on-going release of party funding information – MVC is now considering that challenge.

The minority judgment, penned by Judge Edwin Cameron and supported by Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and Justices Achmat Jappie and Johan Froneman, was more supportive of the MVC’s argument. Judge Cameron said: “The right to vote does not exist in a vacuum. Nor does it consist merely of the entitlement to make a cross upon a ballot paper. It is neither meagre nor formalistic. It is a rich right – one to vote knowingly for a party and its principles and programmes.”

Cameron said voters had the right to vote for a political party, knowing how it will contribute to the country’s constitutional democracy and the attainment of its constitutional goals. “Does this include knowing the private sources of political parties’ funding? It surely does,” he said.

According to February, MVC is considering making a series of specific access to information requests regarding political donations received – this would apply to the ruling party and opposition parties alike. She said more than ever before, South Africans have to consider the fight for open government and transparency as a marathon and not a sprint. “Those who seek to undermine our hard-won democracy and have the voices of the poor and marginalised drowned out, are rent-seekers without conscience.”

Previous attempt also unsuccessful

MVC’s failed application was not the first of its kind. In 2005 the Institute for Democracy in South Africa brought an application to the Cape High Court which sought to force political parties to reveal their sources of funding, but that challenge failed too. Following that application, the African Nation Congress (ANC) said it would deal with the regulation of private funding in Parliament.

At its Polokwane and Mangaung conferences in 2007 and 2012 respectively, the ANC adopted party-funding resolutions which have not been implemented yet.

Following the recent Concourt ruling, ANC chief whip Stone Sizani said: “The ANC would be revisiting its Polokwane resolutions to put in place an effective regulatory architecture for private funding of political parties and civil society groups to enhance accountability and transparency to the citizenry.”

February said the Concourt judgment was but a setback and did not deter the organisation from the fight for legislation to regulate private funding to political parties.

“It is crucial that we continue putting pressure on the politicians, especially ahead of the local government elections, because unless they are pressured, the past 10 years shows us that they will not institute change even though the ANC has been promising this for years.”