Warning over ‘party funding lawlessness’

 ·24 Jun 2024

Civil society groups are once again raising the alarm on a recent legislative amendment, which they say reverses progress in achieving transparency in political party (and independent) funding.

My Vote Counts, a civil society organisation that advocates for transparency about money in politics, has been taking on the government in court because of this.

It describes the current month and a half in South Africa as one of “party funding lawlessness,” which has allowed for “opportunities for a money grab,” which “presents a threat to our democracy.”

The funding declaration gap

The Political Party Funding Act (PPFA) previously set donation thresholds and requirements for parties to declare their external income. This included a R15-million a year limit from a single donor, as well as a R100,000 declaration threshold.

The Electoral Matters Amendment Act (EMAA), signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 7 May 2024, amended the PPFA to allow independent candidates to run for positions in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures and access the Multi-Party Democracy Fund.

However, it contains amendments that remove the disclosure thresholds in the PPFA, which can now only be set by the President after a resolution from the National Assembly.

“Despite our warnings, the President ordered that EMAA come into effect on 8 May, effectively dismantling political party funding transparency laws,” said My Vote Counts.

The “EMAA has created a lacuna in the PPFA.. which allows donors to give unlimited amounts to political parties without any obligation for either the donors or the parties to disclose this information [which] has opened opportunities for a money-grab, and presents a threat to our democracy,” added the group.

Since the EMAA become law over a month and a half ago, the President has yet to declare a reporting threshold or upper limits for donations.

Independent election analyst Michael Atkins recently wrote that “the absence of limits could be one of the greatest democratic scandals unfolding quietly in front of us, while we are distracted by the politics of the election… or, it could be much ado about nothing… but we don’t know, which should not happen in our constitutional order.”

Court action

Consequently, My Vote Counts, which was instrumental in the PPFA, approached the Western Cape High Court seeking urgent relief.

The group asked the court to make an immediate order to declare parts of the EMAA (as they relate to the PPFA) unconstitutional and that until Parliament passes a resolution on the matter, and the President makes a final determination on these limits, the disclosure threshold should remain at R100,000, and the upper limit R15 million.  

On 27 May, the Western Cape High Court agreed with My Vote Counts that there was a gap in the law concerning political funding declarations.

Despite the court agreeing that a lacuna exists, it did not make an order of constitutional invalidity and took no immediate action to close this gap, saying that at this point, doing so would be usurping legislative authority.

Western Cape High Court Judge Daniel Thulare ruled that if no one objects by 12 August, then political funding limits of R15-million a year and the R100,000 declaration threshold are deemed to have continued throughout this saga. 

My Vote Counts is now looking to supplement its May 2023 papers concerning the PPFA in hopes of setting aside the EMAA and all actions taken under that legislation.

This includes seeking the reversal of all possible donations exceeded the R15 million annual limit and the reinstatement of mandatory disclosure for all donations made since May 8, 2024,” said the group.

“Now, political parties must resist exploiting this period of funding lawlessness and refrain from engaging in a money-grab,” said My Vote Counts.

Read: Parties rake in another R172 million in funding – this is who South African billionaires are backing

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