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VISVIN REDDY | How corporate interests shape SA's political system

Secret deal effectively forces majority to live in abject poverty

ballot paper.
ballot paper.
Image: Kevin Sutherland/ File photo

SA has long struggled to reconcile its history of exclusion and inequality with its aspirations for equality and democracy.

However, as the country approaches its next election cycle, a more insidious threat to democracy has emerged: the undue influence of big business over the political system.

A handful of wealthy individuals and corporations have come to dominate the funding of political parties, essentially becoming their handlers in the process.

The result is a political landscape that prioritises the interests of corporate elites at the expense of the people. The story of how big business captured the state dates back to the apartheid era.

Realising that the ANC was on the cusp of taking power, the big business began holding secret meetings with the late statesman Nelson Mandela while he was still in prison.

These negotiations led to the establishment of the Minerals Energy Complex (MEC), a group of corporate leaders led by Harry Oppenheimer and certain ANC leaders, including Cyril Ramaphosa, who led the ANC delegation.

The MEC negotiated a compromise between white politicians, capitalists, American and British pressure groups and the ANC, leading to the adoption of neoliberal economic policies that favoured corporations over the people.

This secret deal effectively cast a spell on poor South Africans, forcing them to live in abject poverty while the wealth of the land remained concentrated in the hands of a few big white businesses.

Rather than sharing the wealth with the people, the ANC leaders who participated in the negotiations received shares and directorships in established companies.

The biggest beneficiary of this trade-off was none other than our current president, Ramaphosa. The business group convinced the ANC to take out an $850m loan from the International Monetary Fund which SA is still repaying today.

Taxes continue to escalate, and poverty deepens as the ANC leaders refuse to share profits with the people. Big businesses' influence over the political system continued to grow in the post-apartheid era.

Under former president Thabo Mbeki, the fear of cancelled deals and redeployment of wealth increased, while under former president Jacob Zuma, radical economic transformation caused major disruptions to business.

Ramaphosa ran for the presidency of the ANC and relied on big business to fund his campaign. The CR17 campaign that ensured Ramaphosa’s victory was funded by big business, contributing over R500m, according to court documents released by former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

Today, the three biggest funders of South African politics are Patrice Motsepe, Martin Moshal and the Oppenheimer family.

Collectively, they have donated more than R200m in the past two years to the ANC, DA, ActionSA, EFF, IFP and Freedom Front Plus. While these organisations may have ideological differences, they all share a common thread: they all have the same funders.

And there is no such thing as a free lunch; these wealthy donors expect quid pro quo from the parties they support.

The democratic challenges facing SA are compounded by looming elections. The ANC and DA are losing support, and big business is worried about the emergence of the MK party, which threatens to redistribute the country’s wealth.

In response, parties like ActionSA, Rise Mzansi and others with black leaders are being funded to split the black vote and keep MK out. These funding mechanisms threaten the democracy of SA, as the interests of a few wealthy individuals and corporations dictate the political landscape.

It is time for South Africans to take back what is theirs. We must stand up against political parties that are captured by wealthy donors, especially business interests, expecting something in return.

Political parties should represent the people, not just their elite funders. 

  • Reddy is president of African Democratic Change

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