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S. African Pro-Democracy Group Sues Five Political Parties Over Funding

A leading pro-democracy group in South Africa is suing five political parties, including the ruling party, to force them to reveal their funding sources. The Institute is hoping to make South African politics more transparent.

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa is taking the country's five largest political parties to court in about two weeks. The group, also known as IDASA, wants to force them to reveal who gives them their money, even though South African law does not currently require political parties to identify their donors.

The Institute notes that South African political parties get some money from the government, and is arguing that the country's freedom of information law should therefore require the parties to reveal the rest of their funding sources.

The head of IDASA's politics program, Richard Calland said it is completely unreasonable to expect taxpayers to continue paying for parties' activities without knowing where they are getting the rest of their money. "Secret funding gives an opportunity for people who want to contaminate the political process by steering political parties, particularly those in government, in particular directions. We have been arguing for transparency in relation to this for eight years now, and regrettably none of the political parties have come to this particular conclusion that we have, and there has been a lack of action. We now feel that the only way to focus minds is to bring these legal cases against the five biggest political parties," he said.

The lawsuit targets South Africa's five largest political parties, including the ruling African National Congress, or ANC.

ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said his party largely depends on its members for funding, through their annual membership fees. He said people who make political donations are entitled to their privacy. "We told IDASA that we as the ANC, we depend on our membership to pay their subscriptions. That's a major part of our funding. When it comes to various other kinds of donations that we are getting, we are accountable to people that actually give us those donations. And if people don't want their names to be disclosed, it's up to them, and we have to comply," he said.

Mr. Ngonyama says he thinks IDASA is making too much of the party funding issue. But he adds that the ANC would comply with any court order to disclose its funding sources.

Mr. Calland of The Institute for Democracy in South Africa believes there will be such an order, and he said the African Union has given his group additional ammunition for its fight to get political parties to identify their donors. "The African Union convention against corruption includes a provision which encourages, in fact it mandates, member states to regulate private funding of political parties. So that captures the mainstream nature of this political issue. Most modern democracies around the world have recognized the link between corruption and secret funding of political parties, and they have therefore said that we must have a level of transparency and a level of regulation," he said.

In addition to the ANC, another target of the IDASA lawsuit is the country's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

The Alliance was stung by a fundraising scandal last year when the party was accused of accepting money from a notorious German fugitive, who has since been extradited back to Germany and convicted of fraud in his home country. The party was eventually cleared of corruption and money-laundering charges, and it turned out that the donation had come from someone else. But the scandal was a serious embarrassment for the opposition party, and illustrated some of the problems with accepting contributions from anonymous donors.

The Democratic Alliance has now proposed a law that would require parties to identify anyone who gives more than 50,000 rand a year, or about $7,200. But Mr. Calland of IDASA says that proposal is far too limited.