On Friday 30 October the Democratic Alliance announced that its federal executive had decided to terminate the membership of its Member of Parliament and KwaZulu-Natal Deputy Leader, Dianne Kohler Barnard. This for the offence of sharing a post on Facebook which compared President Jacob Zuma’s honesty and administrative abilities unfavourably with that of long deceased former National Party President, PW Botha.
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane defended the federal executive’s decision. He told Eye Witness News that Kohler Barnard had violated the party’s “very strong” social media policy. “If there is a post that stands out and says that an apartheid dictator effectively must come back [from the dead] and one of our public reps supports that view or reposts it, it’s offensive – not only to black South Africans, but to white South Africans.”
This decision was publicly welcomed by the party’s enemies, who praised it as a blow against so-called ‘racism’ in the official opposition (though one that did not go nearly far enough). Within the party itself though many public representatives were clearly discomforted by the decision, with shock being expressed by some at the draconian nature of the sanction.
The expulsion of Kohler Barnard, if allowed to stand, would be a bad decision, taken for bad reasons, would set a bad precedent, and would have bad consequences for the official opposition. Before explaining why, however, it is necessary to lay out the facts of the incident concerned.
On the 15th of September this year the head of the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal, Johan Booysen, was once again suspended on, allegedly, spurious grounds and for corrupt motives. As DA Shadow Minister of Police Kohler Barnard issued a statement in the afternoon, condemning the move. She stated that it was “manifestly irrational and must now be probed. In fact, [Hawks boss Mr Berning] Ntlemeza shouldn’t be in the position to suspend anyone at the Hawks given his very appointment is, in itself, born from the same manifest irrationality.
At 14:19 the Durban-based journalist, Paul Kirk, also reacted to the news on Facebook. He commented:
“And so the new head of the Hawks - found to be without integrity and dishonest by the High Court - has suspended ace detective Johan Booysen over a typing error. This is a bloody circus. Please come back PW Botha - you were far more honest than any of these ANC rogues, and you provided far better services to the public - we had a functioning education system, functioning health system and the police did not murder miners on behalf of government toadies as they do now.”
At 20:30 that evening Kohler Barnard “shared” Kirk’s post, without comment, with her Facebook “friends”. According to her later account Kohler Barnard had done this unthinkingly – because of Kirk’s comments on the Booysen case - without reading through the post properly. By six the next morning the potentially politically inflammatory content of the “share” had been brought to her attention by DA KZN leader, Zwakele Mncwango. Kohler Barnard had then deleted it, and apologised to Mncwango. Her “share” of the post had been up some eight hours overnight.
It seems that during that period someone, presumably in the DA, took the following screenshot of Kohler Barnard’s “share” of the post.
Two weeks later this image found its way, somehow, to ANC activists on Twitter. On the 30th September such individuals began widely distributing the image with the comment that this proved that the DA secretly wanted to bring back apartheid. At 9:24 PM Kay Sexwale for one commented: “DA leaders long for the return of PW Botha. Given the chance DA would bring back apartheid.”
As the issued began developing into a Twitter storm Zille publicly addressed Kohler Barnard on Twitter at 10:23PM that evening saying: “Please withdraw that post and apologise unconditionally. It is indefensible, even if you missed the P W Botha bit.”
To which Kohler Barnard replied immediately: “I erased it immediately it was pointed out to me. It has arrived on Twitter this morning. I have apologised & will apologise again.”
About an hour later DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, stepped into the matter and also publicly commented on Twitter: “The post by @DKB20 [Kohler Barnard] is indefensible. She has withdrawn it and apologized. now our internal disciplinary processes will be dealing with this.”
It is worth emphasising here that many people assumed (including apparently Zille and Maimane) that Kohler Barnard had only withdrawn her Facebook ‘share’ once the controversy broke-out across social media on the 30th of September. In other words, only once she had been publicly called-out on it. As the account above documents she had, in fact, done so two weeks previously, with the image being circulated an old one.
The following morning DA National Spokesperson, Phumzile Van Damme, issued a press release stating that the Kohler Barnard’s sharing of this post was “indefensible and is completely inconsistent with the DA’s values of freedom, fairness and opportunity. DA Leader, Mmusi Maimane MP, has therefore referred this offensive post to the party’s Federal Legal Commission – and an internal disciplinary process will now be initiated. Mr Kohler Barnard has already apologised unreservedly. PW Botha was a tyrant, who oversaw torture and murder of thousands of South Africans. That is why our predecessors, including Helen Suzman and Helen Zille, fought against the evil system of Apartheid.”
In his reaction to this development Kirk commented, again on Facebook, that “The DA must be especially stupid. My comparing PW Botha favourably to Zuma is not praise of Botha - it's an indictment of Zuma whose built his own personal monument to corruption at Nkandla and presided over a police force so thuggish that R26BILLION has been set aside to pay out damages claims made against the police force he has helped destroy.”
Various ANC structures (see here, here, here and here) issued statements claiming that this brief Facebook “share” was proof the DA was a racist party, and demanding that the DA deliver Kohler Barnard’s head to them on a platter. The Office of the ANC Chief Whip stated:
“If the DA is serious about ridding itself of its public reputation as a refuge for racists and white supremacists still longing for the return apartheid rule, it must not only merely distance itself from its senior MP's conduct but expel her from the party and Parliament. A person who holds such backward, dangerous and racially divisive views cannot continue to serve in this democratic Parliament.”
The DA leadership proceeded to oblige. On Saturday, 3rd of October, Maimane announced that Kohler Barnard had been demoted from the position of Shadow Minister of Police to the position of Deputy Shadow Minister of Public Works.
Following her various abject apologies Kohler Barnard pled guilty and entered into a “plea and settlement” agreement with the DA’s Federal Legal Commission. The Commission apparently found that Kohler Barnard had acted negligently in briefly sharing Kirk’s comments on PW Botha, but without intent.
It recommended various punitive sanctions, but not that she be dismissed from the party. These included that she pay a fine of R20 000, that she place advertisements in five newspapers apologising, and possibly that she be stripped of her elected position as deputy-leader of the DA in KwaZulu-Natal.
This was not sufficient for the DA leadership. On Friday, 30th of October, the party’s Federal Executive meeting voted to reject the FLC’s recommendations and instead terminate Kohler Barnard’s party membership. This will at a stroke deprive Kohler Barnard of her job as an MP, her salary, her political career, and the DA in KZN of its elected deputy leader.
This decision is currently on hold pending Kohler Barnard’s appeal against it.
The most cogent argument for the party leadership’s actions against Kohler Barnard is a political one. The ANC has perpetually tried to smear the DA as white, racist party secretly lusting to return to apartheid. By sharing Kirk’s PW Botha remarks on social media she gifted the ANC a stick to beat the DA with, on this matter, and potentially damaged the party’s ability to win over black voters in next year’s local government elections. A display of strong and decisive leadership was thus required on the matter. Succinctly put, she harmed the party and so had to go.
There is an Afrikaans saying "die koeël is deur die kerk" that is applicable to situations like these. Once you have accidentally pulled the trigger on your rifle, and the bullet has flown through the church, you can’t go back and unshoot it. You simply have to deal with the repercussions, and most importantly, not cause even more damage to yourself by a panicky and unnecessary reaction. It is also trite to observe that the way to respond to political bullying is to stand firm against it. Weakness and uncertainty simply encourages more of the same.
Kohler Barnard’s sharing of Kirk’s post was a slip-up that was worth, at most, a week’s worth of controversy and negative news coverage. The harm done was accidentally, not intentionally, inflicted. As Oliver Wendell Holmes observed: “even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”
The racialist mobbing and mock outrage on social media would have burnt itself out within days and the offence would largely have been forgotten by now. What would people vaguely remember? That Kohler Barnard had shared a comment by someone else saying that PW was less corrupt and a more able administrator than Jacob Zuma?
By turning this into a formal disciplinary matter the DA leadership has now dragged this story out over weeks. And it is still not over. With every new development in this ongoing saga newspaper readers are reminded of Kohler Barnard’s offence in sharing Kirk’s post, and its content. But this is now the result of the DA leadership’s actions not hers.
The progressively escalating penalties meted out to Kohler Barnard, culminating in the termination of her membership, have offended many DA supporters’ sense of decency and fair play. For a party which claims “fairness” as one of its foundational values the final punishment is, to any reasonable person, vastly disproportionate to the offence. It is also inconsistent. It is easy enough to think of several cases in the recent past where more senior DA leaders have objectively said and done far worse without being subjected to any kind of party discipline.
It also sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech within the party. If Kohler Barnard could be expelled for merely sharing a thoughtcrime on social media, then which public representative can safely express their views and opinions, especially when they could potentially offend the dominant racial nationalism of the day?
Most importantly, however, the actions of the DA leadership are also unlikely to earn the respect of the party’s adversaries or win over wavering voters still doubtful of its reliability and trustworthiness.
Kohler Barnard has served the party with distinction as a public representative for eleven years. You simply do not sacrifice your own people to your enemies even, and indeed especially, when they are vulnerable. True leaders understand this.
In a letter written from prison in March 1989 and sent privately to then State President PW Botha Nelson Mandela rejected outright National Party government demands that the ANC ditch the South African Communist Party. This was certainly an opportune time for the ANC to have done so, as Communism was on the retreat across Eastern Europe. Mandela observed:
“We regard such a demand as a purely divisive Government strategy. It is in fact a call on us to commit suicide. Which man of honour will ever desert a life-long friend at the insistence of a common opponent and still retain a measure of credibility among his people? Which opponent will ever trust such a treacherous freedom fighter? Yet this is what the Government is, in effect, asking us to do: To desert our faithful allies. We will not fall into that trap.”
It is an insight the new DA leadership would do well to heed before it does lasting damage to itself and the party by pushing through with Kohler Barnard’s expulsion.