Behind the DKB affair

Helen Zille says Gareth van Onselen's claim that she pushed hard for the DA MP to be fired is a total untruth

It was entirely predictable that Gareth van Onselen would seize the opportunity to suggest that DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s credibility as a leader depends on the action the party takes against me for a series of tweets posted on my recent return from Singapore.

It’s also ironic that in his article (“Helen Zille’s World is Gone” BusinessLive March 20 2017), Van Onselen pontificates on how tough action against me will consolidate Mmusi’s leadership in some sections of the party. Everyone knows that Gareth has in the past ceaselessly sought to undermine Mmusi, from the moment he announced his candidature for the DA parliamentary leadership.

I obviously cannot discuss the merits of the charges that may be laid against me, which I may inadvertently do if I were to challenge the hollowness of all of Van Onselen’s tendentious mumbo-jumbo.

But I can and must challenge him on the “alternative facts” he advances in the matter of another case -- DA vs Dianne Kohler Barnard -- which he uses to advance his contorted analysis.

The lie he repeats in his article is this:

“It was Zille herself, when the Kohler Barnard matter was before the party’s federal executive, who pushed hard for her to be fired behind closed doors. In the end she did not get her way. But should such a discussion come up before the federal executive and about her own conduct on this front, she would be hard pushed to offer a credible political defence, given her previous position.”

Before I give the facts, a quick summary of the background to the Dianne Kohler Barnard matter is required. In October 2015 Dianne, in her capacity as the DA’s shadow Minister of Police was trying to expose the truth about the witch-hunt against Johan Booysen, KZN Hawks head, because he had dared to investigate corruption allegations against someone in Zuma’s inner circle.

Ironically, at the time, Van Onselen was a senior journalist at the Sunday Times, the newspaper that spearheaded the defamatory stories about Johan Booysen. Unlike the Sunday Times, some other journalists were seeking to show how Booysen was being framed. Dianne, doing her job, followed all the news reports.

Paul Kirk was one of the journalists covering the case. He was one who saw through the attempts to frame Booysen. One night he posted a seriously ill-advised Facebook comment in relation to the case, saying:

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.”

According to Dianne, she was going through her social media pages late at night and without reading the post properly, shared it, because it dealt with the Booysen matter she was also working on.

Later that night, a DA councillor in Durban took a screengrab of the post and sent it to the KZN Provincial Leader Zwakele Mncwango. Early the next morning Mncwango emailed Dianne, to draw her attention to the contents of the post she had shared and asked her to remove it immediately. Dianne, shocked at having failed to read the post adequately before sharing it, deleted it immediately.

Weeks went by. Dianne had put the incident behind her. She assumed her Facebook “friends” and the KwaZulu-Natal leadership accepted her word that it had been an error, and that she was sorry.

No-one outside that small circle knew about the incident (including me and 99,9% of the rest of the DA).

And that is precisely where the problem lay.

Dianne, like every other politician, has opponents inside the party.

They knew that if they could spread the “screengrab” of Dianne’s shared post as widely as possible, they would create massive outrage and that the damage to the DA would be so considerable that the party would have to take action against Dianne.

So their subsequent actions ensured that the screengrab reached the ANC – including none other than ANC cabinet Minister, Fikile Mbalula, Mr Razzmatazz himself, who has hundreds of thousands of twitter followers. On cue, he spread the word, and scores of the ANC’s “war-room” twitterati went into overdrive. Outrage exploded. As anticipated, the DA was seriously damaged, and swung into action against Dianne, exactly as anticipated.

The first I realised of the impending political tsunami was as I boarded an early flight in Cape, and saw the tweet of the screengrab. I realised how disastrous that would be for the DA and Dianne, so I immediately responded saying the post was indefensible, and suggested she apologise for sharing it in the first place. She said she had already done so, weeks ago, apologised again, and explained the full background to me. I believed her. It could easily happen to anyone going through scores of social media messages late at night. I sent her an encouraging message to help her get through the crisis.

The case was expedited and Dianne appeared before the DA’s Federal Legal Commission (FLC). The practice in the DA is that any sentence or plea bargain of the FLC must be ratified, increased, or lessened by the Party’s Federal Executive (Fedex), on which I serve.

Unfortunately, when the FLC sentence came to Fedex for consideration, I was in Mexico, ironically giving a speech on populism for Liberal International to an international audience. So I could not participate in the Fedex deliberations.

I was shocked, later that night, to receive a phone call in my hotel from a South African journalist saying that Dianne had been expelled from the party. The journalist wanted me to comment on news received from “reliable sources” inside the Fedex that I had led the charge for Dianne’s expulsion. I was gobsmacked. I knew exactly who those “sources” were. They have leaked false claims before, and succeeded in having them published as fact.

I told the journalist I was in Mexico, that I hadn’t been at the Fedex meeting, and that my views on the matter were known inside the party but that I would not comment publicly. (Dianne’s expulsion was subsequently suspended on appeal, but she was removed from her portfolio, demoted and forced to resign other positions).

Today, many people inside the DA know what actually happened behind the scenes in the Dianne Kohler Barnard saga. She paid a very high price, engineered by her opponents inside the DA. It is inconceivable that Gareth van Onselen does not know the real background story, and possibly a whole lot more (given his well-known history of interaction with some of the DA’s oft-quoted but anonymous “reliable sources”).

My question simply is: who damaged the DA more? Dianne for carelessly “sharing” a post on Facebook, that no-one other than her “friends” actually saw? Or the people inside the DA who conspired to send it far and wide in order to inflict maximum damage on the DA so that they could get rid of Dianne?

Of course, the DA takes this issue seriously and has been investigating the thread. These things are difficult to establish in ways that will pass muster in a proper legal process.

But until then, there is no reason for people to remain ignorant of the facts that are well known inside the DA today, especially when Gareth van Onselen continues to propagate lies about them.