Is the ANC selling out our sovereignty?

James Myburgh on the dangers of the ANC using foreign funding to buy its way to a two-thirds majority

For some time now it has been clear that the African National Congress has been running the best election campaign that money can buy. Compared to the other political parties, which have had to scrape together funds to contest the elections, South Africa's ruling party seems to have an almost bottomless war chest.

Some of the sources of the ANC's advantages in fundraising are known. The ANC, due to the current size of its parliamentary majority, receives some seventy percent of government funding - although it is not allowed to spend this on electioneering per se. Most corporate funders allocate the bulk of their political party funding to the ANC, although opposition parties receive a greater or lesser share as well.

The ANC has also, over the years, pursued various surreptitious funding schemes which may or may not have borne fruit in this election. Yet it seems that much of the ANC's massive, and possibly overwhelming, expenditure on this election campaign originates from foreign sources. On Friday the Mail & Guardian quoted "party insiders" as saying the ANC's election effort has been "heavily subsidised by the ruling parties in Libya, Angola, China and India." It has also apparently received funds from Equatorial Guinea.

This report seems to have been little noticed, which is surprising as this kind of funding poses as much, if not more of, a threat to South Africa's democracy than the efforts to subvert the National Prosecuting Authority. There are self-evident problems with this kind of funding. For one thing, for the ANC to actively solicit such donations obviously compromises South Africa's national security (defined as the continued ability of the country "to pursue the development of its internal life without serious interference ... from foreign powers.") For another, it poses clear dangers for the consolidation of democracy in this country.

It is for such reasons that many democracies ban foreign donations outright. In the United States - according to a Federal Electoral Commission brochure - the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) "prohibits any foreign national from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly. It is also unlawful to help foreign nationals violate that ban or to solicit, receive or accept contributions or donations from them. Persons who knowingly and willfully engage in these activities may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment."

Such prohibitions apply in many other countries as well. In 2003 the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) produced a useful handbook on political party funding across the world (see here). It states that foreign donations to political parties were banned in forty out of the 111 countries surveyed. Among the countries where ANC-style foreign fundraising would be illegal were: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Honduras, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

The IDEA handbook notes that foreign funding of political parties presents the most "obvious danger" of all sources of party funding: "If a governing party depends heavily on financial resources provided by foreign governments or especially multinational corporations, their influence may undermine national sovereignty and the democratic principle of self-determination."

The ANC's 1994 and 1999 election campaigns were largely financed with donations from foreign countries, including some of the world's most notorious dictatorships. One result has been the serial neglect by the ANC government of South Africa's national interests in foreign policy (not to mention human rights considerations) as its first priority has always been to repay its main funders with favours. At various points over the past fifteen years the ANC has been in hock to the regimes of Nigeria, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Libya, China, and Taiwan (see here). And these are just the ones we know about.

Foreign funding seems to have dried up before the 2004 poll after Nelson Mandela stopped tapping foreign leaders on the ANC's behalf following his fallout with Thabo Mbeki. But, according to the Mail & Guardian ANC President Jacob Zuma has now successfully used his visits to various fraternal ruling parties overseas to do some fund raising on the side. This may already be compromising the ability of South Africa to pursue its own interests, free of external interference. If the M&G and COPE are correct - and the Chinese Communist Party is helping to pay for the ANC's 2009 election campaign - the obvious question is whether this underpinned the government's otherwise inexplicable decision to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a conference in this country?

In its section on party funding in Africa the IDEA handbook notes that those sources of funding most incompatible with democracy are "kickbacks from recipients of government contracts and other largesse, diverting state resources to the governing party through front organizations, and donations from foreign sources such as business owners, multinationals and governments." In addition in many African countries "the use and abuse of state resources is a corrupt form of massive public funding... available only to the governing party."

The advantages that can accrue to ruling parties are a major contributing factor to democratic atrophy in Africa. As IDEA notes: "In many African countries Governing parties' use of state resources, with evident impunity, and their brazen demand for and acceptance of kickbacks explain much of the apparent electoral impregnability of many African governing parties, even those with clear records of economic and human rights failures. They manage to build such formidable electoral war chests that their impoverished opponents usually have little chance."

Apart from donations from foreign sources, there is already much evidence in the public domain of the ANC using these other dubious means to advantage itself and secure its position. The dangers for democracy in South Africa are also similar. At a time when this country should be looking forward to a more pluralistic and responsive democracy - and the ruling party to a much reduced majority - the ANC may succeed in simply buying its way back to a two-thirds majority.

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