From classroom 5A at UCT to Parliament: a lecture that became reality

30 August 2017 | Opinion Mike Law.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

A few years into a law degree the novelty wears off. The great aspirations of the glitter and the glamour are replaced by an endless supply of pages, files and folders, and your passion is replaced with fear. I was no exception to this phenomenon. And then in walked Professor Richard Calland. He taught the law like nobody had taught it to us before. Like any good law professor, he taught you the legal principles. But he took his teaching to a level beyond any of the very many exemplary law professors I experienced. What set him apart was his commitment to give his learners the 'full picture' and to teach you the story behind the law; the story that coexists with the law, which cannot be understood without it.

I remember during one lecture he told us the story of his involvement with the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) and their campaign for transparency in the private funding of political parties. Again, he didn’t frame the debate in the legal principles but rather told us of the numerous instances of corruption that had scarred South Africa as a result of this legislative lacuna.

After he explained the failed attempt by IDASA in the high court in 2005 to obtain an order that political parties must disclose all details of their funding activities, I approached Professor Calland with all the cockiness and ignorance of a law student who thought they knew how this game works. “You should have appealed,” I told him. The head of a proud man lowered as he mumbled his response: “The biggest mistake of my career”, and I immediately regretted my previous remark.

So when the same professor approached me – now armed with my master's degree in law – a few months ago, requesting my help on this new initiative taken by Parliament, the sense of honour that I felt was quickly replaced by a sense of responsibility. This time there can be no failure and no regrets. So I committed myself to playing my small role as hard and as strong as I possibly could.

As I trawled through my old professor’s boxes of files that he had worked on with IDASA over a decade ago, two things struck me. The first was the surreal feeling of working on something that I had experienced as a ʻstoryʼ in my legal studies and could not possibly have foreseen that I would play an active role in the sequel. The second was just how close they had been to success. Everything was there. The argument could not have been more compelling. All that was missing was a more nuanced interpretation of the Constitution by the sitting judge – and the piece of legislation that their efforts and arguments deserved.

Thus there was a sense of sadness going through those files – that all of their efforts had come to naught. But as I’ve sat in Parliament over the past few weeks that sense of sadness has been replaced by a sense of hope. It seems, finally, to be happening. My professor once told me that great ideas are “like a good avocado – one must allow time for ripening”.

Disclosure will happen. The importance of this matter has been somewhat lost in the never-ending drama of the South African political arena. Corruption and undue meddling by outside interests in our politics remains and continues to grow as one of the greatest threats to the economic and political well-being of this great country, which so many before my time fought so hard to create.

As, contrary to government institutions, political parties are able to hide behind the disguise of ʻprivate entitiesʼ, those with dubious motives now aim their influence at the political parties rather than government where they are able to conceal their interactions with the former as the current legislative regime permits. Change is coming in South Africa, the only questions remaining are what changes and how?

The Democratic Alliance remains the only party that resists the disclosure of their donors. Why? Because they fear that their donors will be deterred as public knowledge of their allegiance with the opposition party may compromise such donors’ positions as they enter into the public sector. This fear is legitimate.

The solution cannot be one that suits the ruling party and compromises the leading opposition. However, more importantly, the solution cannot be one with continues to compromise the well-being of our country as a whole, and the DA must concede ground to realise this ambition. While from a legal sense, the DA’s vote on this is not needed, the legitimacy of reform depends heavily on consensus between the leading parties. While the immediate concern of the DA is reasonable, the long-term objective must take preference.

The donor climate will adapt, and far from deterring donors to the DA, the new system will serve to publicly unveil the very concerns that the DA is putting forward, allowing prejudices and preferences towards entities donating to the ruling and opposition parties to be openly displayed and challenged.

During these proceedings, there have been myriad technical proposals as to what should be included in what now is agreed to be a new Act of Parliament. These proposals and debates belong here, but the true reform will come in transparency. As I sit in Parliament at 22:30 listening to the committee debate these wide-ranging issues, I look at Richard Calland sitting beside me and think to myself, after all these years, what would be a ʻwinʼ for this man from these proceedings?

While I have not yet asked him that question, I know what would be a win for me. There are two things that I so desperately want to come from this process. The first is the end of an era of secrecy in the funding of the primary flag-bearers of our multiparty democracy. The second is to return to my old professor all of his timeworn boxes and folders with one small addition, the only thing that was lacking: a new piece of legislation.

Mike Law

Law holds an LLB and LLM (specialising in Constitutional and Administrative Law) from the University of Cape Town. He has worked extensively for the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (“CASAC”) on the Ad Hoc Committee on the Funding of Political Parties, and has observed all meetings of the committee up until the present date.

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