JOHANNESBURG — The “war room” for the African National Congress candidates running in local elections three years ago was an elaborate operation with new computers, wall monitors, lodging for volunteers and catered food three times a day.
But the A.N.C., the party in power for the 25 years since the end of apartheid, did not fund its own war room. A South African company named Bosasa paid for everything, including the wages of the so-called volunteers, according to recent testimony at a government inquiry on corruption.
Now as South Africans prepare to vote in a pivotal general election on May 8, the public does not know where the A.N.C. and the opposition parties raised the tens of millions of dollars needed to run rallies, print posters, buy television ads and perform myriad other tasks as part of their campaigns across a vast land of 57 million people.
Though South Africa has long been held up as a model of democratization, revelations at the inquiry indicate that the financing of its elections appears to be riddled with the same kind of corrupt practices that have consumed the nation in recent years.
Bosasa has been at the center of the ongoing government inquiry on public corruption. The company was accused by several whistle-blowers, including the former chief operating officer, of using bribes to win lucrative contracts from government officials affiliated with the A.N.C. And to keep the money flowing, it made sure the A.N.C. remained in power, in part by paying for a campaign war room.
For nearly two decades, the A.N.C. and rival parties had fought efforts in the courts by advocacy groups to force them to reveal information about their private efforts. The A.N.C. has consistently denied criticism that it opposed campaign finance reform to keep its donors secret.
“It’s been a huge gap, a huge weakness in our political system,” said Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, an advocacy group.
A recent about-face by the A.N.C. had raised hopes — prematurely, it turned out — that things might be different this year.
Under pressure in the courts and from anti-corruption groups, the A.N.C. pushed through legislation mandating more transparency in election financing. But President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been running on a campaign against corruption, delayed signing the bill by a few months — just enough time to ensure that the law would not be implemented in time for this election.
What’s more, Mr. Ramaphosa himself is now under investigation for a $36,000 donation his campaign received — from Bosasa.
The public protector’s office, a government anti-corruption agency, is investigating Mr. Ramaphosa on suspicion of lying in parliament about the donation from Bosasa. Initially, Mr. Ramaphosa said the money had been received by his son, Andile. The son began working as a highly paid consultant for Bosasa around the same time that Mr. Ramaphosa became president in February 2018.
Mr. Ramaphosa later acknowledged that the money had been given to an attorney working for his successful campaign for the A.N.C.’s internal party election in December 2017 — a contest that was marred by widespread fraud in some provinces.
Mr. Ramaphosa said he disclosed the donation as soon as he became aware of it.
“No wonder the president didn’t declare this payment,” said Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party. “It’s dirty money.”
But advocacy groups say that both the A.N.C. and the major opposition parties have steadfastly rebuffed calls for more transparency since the early 2000s. In fact, their direct appeals to the parties to disclose the identities of their private donors voluntarily were rejected or ignored, they said.
“It’s very difficult for turkeys to vote for Christmas,” said Murray Hunter, a researcher and former spokesman for Right2Know, a group that lobbies for access to information.
So little is known about private donations that there have been only hints about how much parties have spent on previous campaigns.
In the local elections in 2016, the A.N.C.’s head of elections disclosed that the party spent more than one billion rand, about $70 million at current exchange rates. After the staggering sum drew immediate criticism, party leaders said the figure was inaccurate but offered no further details.
More recently, a provincial A.N.C. treasurer said that the party required at least 550 million rand, or more than $38 million, for its campaign leading up to the coming election.
Despite their longstanding secrecy, A.N.C. leaders suddenly announced in 2017 that they would support legislation requiring the disclosure of parties’ private donors — for the good of democracy, they said.
However, the A.N.C.’s about-face was much more pragmatic, according to current and former party officials and transparency groups.
In 2017, the endemic corruption inside the A.N.C. was gaining attention in South Africa, especially in relation to then-president Jacob Zuma and his ties to the Gupta brothers, three businessmen from India. Party leaders acknowledged that the focus on corruption was hurting the party financially.
Many of the A.N.C.’s traditional backers stopped donating because they feared being associated with the party’s corrupt practices, said Makhosi Khoza, a longtime A.N.C. leader who left the party in 2017 to form an opposition party, African Democratic Change.
“The A.N.C. got used to the habit of raising funds in covert ways by selling government contracts,” Ms. Khoza said. “But then companies that had donated to the A.N.C. and benefited from state resources became scared of giving money and being exposed.
“The A.N.C. got into serious financial trouble,” she said, adding that the party’s abrupt reversal in 2017 was not for the sake of greater transparency. “They were forced into it.”
At the same time, a private group, My Vote Counts, successfully fought in the courts for greater transparency of private donations. The nation’s highest court ruled last June that the source of private funding must be made public. The judgment forced all parties to disclose their private donors within 18 months.
“The A.N.C. wants to take credit for initiating the process in parliament,” said Zahira Grimwood, a researcher at My Vote Counts.
Sure enough, when Mr. Ramaphosa signed the bill into law in February, the A.N.C. said that it had “consistently supported the principle of regulating funding for political parties,” and viewed this as “an important milestone in strengthening our democracy.”
But parliament had passed the bill almost a year earlier in March 2018. Transparency groups and the former head of the public protector’s office pleaded with Mr. Ramaphosa to sign it then, but his delay meant that it would not be in effect this election.
The law — which election officials now hope will be in place before the next general election scheduled for 2024 — should eventually be a “game changer” in providing more transparency about private donors, said Mr. Naidoo of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
Others were more cautious. Disclosure will be required only for donations totaling more than 100,000 rand a year, or about $7,000 — a threshold that experts regard as too high, especially in local races.
The parties will find other loopholes, advocacy groups warn. For instance, under the new law, Mr. Ramaphosa would not have been required to disclose his donation from Bosasa because it was not made directly to him, but to a campaign lawyer, Ms. Grimwood said.
For this election, voters will know even less. They have, though, gleaned clues from the testimony of Bosasa’s former chief operating officer, Angelo Agrizzi, now serving as a key whistle-blower in government corruption hearings held recently.
He testified that centers for troubled youths — which Bosasa had government contracts to run — were a widely tapped source of campaign funds.
According to Mr. Agrizzi, the scheme worked like this: A.N.C. officials would approach Bosasa, saying they needed money for a campaign. Bosasa would then fraudulently invoice the government for old computer software at the youth centers. Once paid, Bosasa usually kept half.
“The other part,” he added, “would be paid in cash to the official.”