“IS IT not time to institute some kind of separation of state and business?” asked a friend on Facebook recently.
It’s a question that sounds even more pertinent now in the light of President Jacob Zuma's much-reported comments at the ANC’s January fundraiser: “Support is fine, we love it.
"But if you just go beyond that and become a member you’ll realise everything of yours will go very well. If you are a businessman, business will thrive. Everything you touch will multiply.”
Did anyone really believe the explanations and protestations by spokespeople after the event? It’s a simple enough offer to understand: you support us, we’ll support you.
The sin Zuma committed (as is so often the case) was to say out loud what everyone knows to be true, when no one else is willing to pop the beautiful shiny bubble floating through the air: political parties need money, business needs leverage - a perfect, sulphurous match.
Business worldwide has an unholy influence on the political process. Funding of political parties gives big businesses and industry groups enormous political clout.
Political clout that ordinary citizens can never even dream of matching – if you’ve got a particular issue you want action on (let’s say increased funding for sustainable energy), you’ll need a minimum of a million rand to get in the game.
How does this influence unfold?
Take the US sugar industry, for example: as the Washington Post reported on November 3 2007, “Sugar groups have used campaign cash and far-reaching alliances with labour unions and politicians to expand their influence far beyond the 15 states and few dozen congressional districts where sugar is grown by fewer than 6 000 farmers.”
This is an interesting comment in the light of what happened a few years earlier. In 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was about to release its report on diet and nutrition, which would recommend that we limit sugar to 10% of our diet.
This is surely something most of the 300 million US citizens (as opposed to 6 000 farmers plus employees and stakeholders) would agree was wise and would help them to bring up healthy children and beat the curse of obesity.
The sugar industry got its knickers in a knot and demanded that the US Congress end its funding to the WHO unless this recommendation was scrapped. (The industry said that we could comfortably take in a quarter of our diet as sugar. Yep, you betta believe it!)
If I remember rightly, the outcome was a watered-down recommendation to “reduce sugar intake”, but I can’t find the citation right now, so I stand to be corrected.
There used to be a cap on how much a business could give a US candidate, by the way, until 2010 and the Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, which decided that campaign funding was an expression of free speech.
You can see the results in election spend: in 1996, the total was $153m, in 2000, $240m, in 2004 $410m and in 2008, $774m. But last year, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns spent a whopping total of $2bn.
Does anyone honestly think that oil companies and pesticide manufacturers are spending this kind of money just because they like Obama’s youthful style? How would you explain that to the shareholders?
It’s possible that in South Africa, some business people are "investing" in the ANC for ideological reasons, but I don’t think that’s likely to pull the really big bucks.
Business people are more practical than that. Businesses simply want the biggest leverage they can afford when policies they don’t like are on the table. Which makes business much too powerful, doesn’t it?
Politicians are mandated by the electorate, but all too often, that mandate is skewed by other agendas – often those of business.
For instance, a recent poll in France, Germany and the UK shows that the public would like, overwhelmingly (90% is pretty convincing), to see fraudulent bankers jailed. Is this something you expect to see implemented by governments any time soon, hmm?
In 2011, a survey showed that 74% of Americans wanted an end to tax subsidies to oil companies, while 77% were pretty much in favour of eliminating subsidies to all very rich companies. Has that happened in the interim? Nyet!
As Idasa’s Judith February wrote on www.ngopulse.org on February 27 last year: “Secret donations from private sources, such as wealthy individuals or large corporations, have the potential to exert undue influence on the political system, secretly drowning out the voices of the poor and further excluding the marginalised from political influence, as well as potentially undermining numerous constitutionally enshrined rights.”
To ensure an equitable voice for citizens, we need to regulate funding, surely. We have controlled public funding for political parties in South Africa, but there is no legislation governing private funding.
As voting and tax-paying citizens, we should have the right to know who donates and how much. And I believe that we should also impose a sensible cap on what any individual, organisation or business can donate.
That might help to disperse the faint whiff of corruption that so often teases the nostrils whenever business, government and money are in the same room.
*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.
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