Quicker than you could blink, it’s an election year again. As the campaign cycle intensifies, all sorts of politics will be flung around. Politicians will say all the right things and make the right promises. This gives them the chance to control the conversation and direct our attention towards topics that they are prepared to campaign on. But amongst all this political rhetoric there are many real and important problems facing South Africa that will not be dealt with. And we must ensure that some of these hard questions receive answers around voting time.

Much has been discussed about party funding. Promises were made, some under oath, protests held, letters written and yet Parliament has failed to honour its constitutional duty to enact comprehensive laws and regulations on party funding. Private donations to political parties are a black hole. And we as citizens have failed to hold Parliament to account.

Currently, parties that are represented in the national and provincial legislatures receive a sum of money that is proportional to their representation in Parliament. This public funding is regulated by the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act 103 of 1997 and the amounts allocated to each party are publicly available. In the 2012–2013 financial year the African National Congress (ANC) received R69 million of the R104,8 million earmarked for all 14 political parties that hold seats in parliament. The notice for the 2013–2014 financial year as published in the Government Gazette on 5 April 2013 increased the allocation for all political parties to R114,8 million.

But you may have heard the EFF and Agang complaining that this system is unfair: they don’t get any of this money as new entrants into the political market.

We must be sympathetic to this argument because it is a reality that parties require money and lots of it. The United States’ 2012 presidential election was the most expensive in history, totaling US$ 6.3 billion. President Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s campaigns spent a combined US$ 2.6 million every day this past election cycle.

The increase in parties’ election spending from private donations in South Africa has increased from about R100 million in 1994 to R550 million in 2009 and is set to increase again this year. It is not difficult to see how this size of money lead to political inequality, corruption and a lack of accountability. Often, but not always, this is done in return for some kind of favour:  a tender, political kickback, or favourable economic policies. Because there is no regulation, parties might be tempted to give in and accept dirty money and we will have no way of holding those involved to account.  There is no doubting the fact that donors want something in return for their donations. This allows corruption to thrive with no real danger of any consequences because citizens have no information about these undercover deals. That road with potholes? Who received the tender to fix it? Drug companies trying to fix patent laws, who do you think they give money to when they try and influence policy? So these problems are strongly tied to the issue of party funding.

As citizens, it is important that we think carefully about this issue and urgently design a system to regulate donations to political parties that address these specific challenges that face our country. That this is one of the most pressing challenges that face us as citizens, is no small exaggeration.

South Africa is a deeply unequal society, and unregulated party funding further entrenches this inequality. It is a system that takes away from our democratic rights. It makes our vote less powerful than it should be. As we are casting our ballots, big business, wealthy individuals and foreign stakeholders are meeting with our government behind closed doors and deciding the fate of our country. Because wealthy individuals are allowed to influence government with their large donations, it makes our voice smaller. We are all meant to have an equal voice, yet we cannot afford to influence decisions in our favour the way some can. One man one vote is not a reality in our current system. Until we can ensure that Parliament honours its duty to our constitution, this reality will continue.