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Wed Jul 23 20:19:26 SAST 2014

Excluded? Buy your way in

Brendan Boyle | 26 January, 2012 00:40
Brendan Boyle
Image by: The Dispatch

The ANC has been selling access to government leaders at least since 2006.

It is not a uniquely South African practice, but it is one that needs to be monitored as we head towards Mangaung 2012, where the party's next leadership battle will be fought. In South Africa, the process is managed by the party through an organisation it owns, the Progressive Business Forum (PBF). You will find it advertised on the ANC website.

This is separate from the ANC's secretive funding arm, Chancellor House, which does business with the government on the party's behalf. The issues are different, though I am sure that the business deals that emerge from each often overlap.

For a considerable sum - which is not publicly advertised - you can buy PBF membership in various categories and get invited to functions with ANC leaders, who happen also to run the government departments that formulate policy and whose tenders are the fountain of new wealth in this country.

"As a participant you will be part of an informal mechanism for frank and open discussion between the business community and ANC government leaders," the PBF advertises. This sort of interaction between business and government leaders is as old as politics.

It happened at the Roman forum and it is not of itself cause for particular alarm.

But, in this country, selling this sort of access has become a significant source of party funding.

It is not the government that is being paid for access to, for example, Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies, it is the party.

In Britain, the process appears to have been privatised and the kickback to the parties in power is unclear. The Guardian newspaper led its front page on Wednesday with news that a corporate lobbyist, the Chemistry Club, was charging companies up to £1800 (about R22330) to meet ministers at carefully managed networking events.

We go further even than this in South Africa, however.

"You will also ... be given the opportunity to join ANC-led international trade missions and conferences, enabling you to promote your products and services internationally," the organisation promises on its website.

Those trips are not actually ANC-led, they are government-led - and funded. Many countries, China and Angola from my own experience, tend to see the business delegation travelling with a president as somehow sanctioned or government approved.

It is almost as good as a government credit guarantee.

Getting this sort of access should not be in the gift of a party.

The delegations that travel with presidents should be chosen on the basis of their economic significance, not their loyalty to the party in power.

Their separation from politics should be emphasised, not blurred.

The independent South African democracy watchdog, the Institute for Democracy in SA (Idasa) has been lobbying for nearly 15 years for legislation to enforce transparency in political party funding. The problem it confronts is that, though everyone acknowledges the need to some degree, each wants the other to go first.

"The ANC should champion the introduction of a comprehensive system of public funding of representative political parties in the different spheres of government and civil society organisations as part of strengthening the tenets of our new democracy," the party resolved at its stormy Polokwane conference in 2007.

"The incoming [national executive committee of the ANC] must urgently develop guidelines and policy on public and private funding, including how to regulate investment vehicles."

ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa has talked about it often, saying he favours a German model, but no legislation has been tabled or publicly discussed.

That line "how to regulate investment vehicles", which appears to refer directly to Chancellor House, could be the major stumbling block.

Idasa's Judith February, who heads the organisation's political information and monitoring group, says enough research has been done on the topic and what is needed now is the political will to enforce transparency.

"If we don't know where parties are getting their money, it means people can be exercising influence over policy . with citizens not getting the information to enable them to join the dots," she said.

With the ANC's next internal election just 10 months away, and the real possibility of another internal change of power, the incentive to get close to the party players is going to strengthen.

If Jacob Zuma and his cronies are ousted, there will be a new gold rush, as there was after the Polokwane conference at which Zuma ousted Thabo Mbeki.

From education to the environment, those in the know would be able either to push a new administration towards their own fields of opportunity or anticipate the business that new ministers would create. Organisations such as the ANC's PBF, and possibly clones of Britain's Chemistry Club, will be in the pound seats, selling time with those who can sell access to wealth for the people excluded by the current elite.

Without regulated transparency about who goes to these events and what they pay to be there, we will not, as February puts it, be able to join the dots.

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