I have watched with mirth these last ten years as all of the political parties in South Africa have become more corporatised. Naturally they have retained their reliance on donor funding and political donations, and have not found a way to become self sufficient, either financially or organisationally.

However, in a business the entrepreneurs provide goods and services to their customers and derive an income from this provision. In a political party, the members are contracted to provide public leadership and they derive an income from this provision.

A business is not allowed to solicit or receive tax-free donations, because it is expected to survive on its invested capital, borrowings against that capital and its income from operations. So why is it that a political party cannot survive on just its membership fees and the income earned from the provision of public leadership? Why does a party need to raise donations?

I am told that the amounts received for the provision of public leadership and from membership fees, do not cover the costs of running a political party, to which I respond, “so reduce your costs, pay your public representatives less and streamline your administration apparatus”, to which they respond, “no”.

But surely if the ANC got every one of its voters to join the ANC, it would have a minimum of R120-million each year from membership fees and from all of its MPs, MPLs and Councillors, it would have a minimum of another R576-million each year? That’s a minimum of R696-million each year to employ 4 000 people and run 100 admin offices. Call me a scrooge if you will — but that’s very easy to do.

Annually the DA, on the other hand, would be looking at a minimum of R20-million in membership fees and a minimum of another R192-million from its public representatives. Agreeably a smaller party, but R212-million to employ 2 000 people and run 100 admin offices is still possible.

And this doesn’t take into account senior party deployees who provide leadership in parastatals and other public bodies, by appointment of the state, which if counted, would surely increase the revenue to the party. And let’s not forget their investments and revenue generating assets, which they have accumulated.

So if political parties did not provide any services other than public representation, and none of them do, and if they were to employ all of their public representatives and then streamline the employment of non-representative staff; they would be wholly sustainable and non reliant on donor funding.

I have been told that the core activity of political parties, apart from representation, is advocacy and community development. I refute this in its entirety, because there is not one party in South Africa that owns a MPCC or provides any public service, which cannot be obtained from a government agency or through the private sector without that political party being involved. There is also no political party that runs its own academic research institute, and as such cannot claim that it is doing the work of government, civil society or the church for that matter.

No, it is clear that, while politicians cannot charge people directly for the representation they provide (like a business does), and while the vast majority of political work involves obtaining and reporting on mandates from the people (which is more involved that cursory market research); it is also clear that the taxpayers pay politicians very well for these services as provided through their parties, of which they are members and public representatives.

As to whether the members of a non-profit organisation are entitled to derive a benefit from their pursuance of the inherent objects of the NPO, in the course of their duties which derive from their membership, is another debate and one which I fear that the political parties and politicians will lose outright.

Naturally when we look at corrupt parties and politicians, who are trying to make as much money for themselves as is possible by selling priority of service delivery, representation and advocacy (ie. soliciting bribes to expedite access to public resources for the briber); and by soliciting donations which are used for own living expenses rather than their political work; we have to ask why they bother to lie, cheat and steal just so that they can make small amounts of easy money, when they could make much more easy money using all of their inherently devious skills, in an extractive or exploitative industry and/or on the securities exchange?

The answer is that after a while a small party or a small section within a party tends to become the preserve and fiefdom of the big fish in that pond. And soon that political entity becomes the revenue machine for that big fish. Whether by way of representation income, bribes or donations; the big fish has to maintain control to maintain benefit from revenue streams. Complacency sets in and political inertia resists changes to the status quo. When this happens honest people leave branches and the party stops growing.

This is why branches and regions cannot be run by one person or one cabal of persons, why branches and regions cannot operate like franchises and why branches and regions must be autonomous and politically solvent – without being subject to the whims of the big fish.

But this is also why the corporatisation of political parties is wrong; given that corporatisation is dependent on sustainability to be effective. And so we see that a political party is not a business, nor can it be run like a business. Not because it’s impossible to do so, but because the will to establish wholly self-sustainable politics is absent in its entirety.

For all of those who like me have been hashed for political donations, do as I do: give the money to your local church for their soup kitchens and rehabilitation centres. At least with dishonest priests there is someone above looking down and moderating things.



Avishkar Govender

Avishkar Govender is the Chief Political Officer of MicroGene.

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