Over the weekend the Democratic Alliance (DA) announced that it had demoted its shadow police minister, Dianne Kohler Barnard, after she re-posted a comment on Facebook suggesting that some aspects of South Africa were better under PW Botha. The African National Congress celebrated the DA's discomfit, while DA leaders muttered earnestly about how they would use their structures to deal with this. Kohler Barnard herself had already apologised, but it is a story that will stick around for some time. As a political incident, it is rather revealing about where our politics is, and about the strengths and dangers of us, as South Africans, discussing our lives on Twitter and Facebook. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
There is probably nothing more dangerous to the image of the DA right now than one of its white MPs displaying any kind of racist behaviour, or of being nostalgic for our apartheid past. The party’s leadership would probably rather lose control of another council (as they did last week) than have that happen. It is the kind of own goal the ANC could have only hoped for, as it spreads the message that the DA is the “party that would bring apartheid back” far more effectively than they ever could. And all of this just months before an election, at which time the Facebook post will probably make an appearance on an election poster, or 10.
There will be those in the DA who feel sorry for Dianne Kohler Barnard, who say all she did was repost something she hadn’t read properly. They will point to other crimes, real or imagined, by ANC figures, who were not punished by their party; to those against whom findings of corruption were made, such as Bheki Cele, and yet are still in government. Given the fact that Kohler Barnard is what you could call “DA establishment”, that she has been quite successful in her position, and is a good parliamentary performer, there would be some support for her remaining in her position.
Then there is the position of DA leader Mmusi Maimane himself, a new, young, black, leader of a party trying to rebrand itself. As so often in politics, it’s a dangerous situation, but also one with some opportunity. It’s dangerous in that should he mishandle it, Maimane could easily be painted as a leader who’s not really in charge; the claim that he is in fact just a willing symbol while taking direction from “Helen Zille, the white Madam” would gain renewed traction. But it is also an opportunity, as it could also be used to show that he is in charge, the best way to get rid of that image.
In the end, Maimane went about half way. He demoted Kohler Barnard by taking away her high-profile position, but he didn’t throw her out of the DA caucus. That could happen of course, through the disciplinary process that will follow, but it seems unlikely at this stage. All in all, it’s probably a balanced response.
The ANC no doubt will not see it that way. They will say she must be fired, and now. However, it would be a mistake to try to give in to the demands of an opponent; if you do, they will simply ask for more. If you sack Kohler Barnard, they will demand that anyone who ever supported her go too, it would never end. It is a mistake to try to pacify your enemies in politics, and one that the DA does not appear to have made. A cynic could also say that the ANC has never made this mistake either, considering how it’s stood by its members when they’ve come under attack from the DA in the past.
Kohler Barnard may feel all of this is unjust; all she did was re-post something. But, as Professor Somadoda Fikeni has pointed out, politics is not fair. He also suggested that Facebook can sometimes be a little like your library, if you have five copies of Mein Kampf in your bookcase, it might be hard to take you seriously as a human rights campaigner. In this case, Kohler Barnard was associating with the journalist Paul Kirk, who does not have the image of a progressive.
It appears he has tried to make the argument that people have freedom of speech, and the DA is wrong to punish Kohler Barnard. As an argument, it’s incredibly weak. Everyone has freedom of speech, but there are always consequences for that speech. If there were no consequences, there would be no point in expression in the first place. If you are the leader of the Kaiser Chiefs fan club, you have the right to say Pirates are the best team in the league. But expect consequences. If you are the DA, and trying desperately to win urban black votes, and you are seen to praise PW Botha, there are consequences.
What is really amazing about Kohler Barnard’s behaviour is that it actually happened in the first place. As the ANC’s Moloto Mothapo pointed out in Daily Maverick last week, this is not the first time DA MPs have run into this kind of trouble. It is in the nature of social networks to be social, so if you say, post, or draw something stupid and racist in them (as happened here), people are going to find out about it, and you will then be rightly punished.
It is tempting to say Kohler Barnard should be punished just for her stupidity in this instance, but that could downplay what surely must be a racial sub-text to the comment.
All of that being said, the ANC’s reaction to this incident is itself interesting. If this had happened 10 years ago, there would have been an angry statement from Luthuli House and little more. Now, the ANC spin machine, the columns, the tweets, the complaints, the anger, have been deployed in full force. If there is anything the DA can take heart from in this, it’s that the ANC is demonstrating once again that it is a party Luthuli House takes seriously. It would seem that this reaction shows the DA is seen as a threat by the ANC, or by parts of it.
This affair has arrived in a particular context, at a particular moment in time in our relationship between politics and social media in general. Just recently, Twitter appears to have become more than ever a kind of politics by other means. There have been what look like orchestrated attacks on people like Yusuf Abramjee (Full disclosure: Abramjee is the boss of Grootes’s boss – Ed), Ferial Haffajee, and then of course the huge reaction to comments by Zelda la Grange. What these incidents have in common is that the people concerned were members of the minorities, and are seen as anti-ANC.
This leads to questions about whether some of this has been orchestrated or not, and if so, by whom. It gets slightly more complicated, however, when we look at the minorities issue. Many members of our Twitterati seem to try to make the argument that if you are not black, you must be racist until proven otherwise. In the case of Kohler Barnard it’s her history at the SABC before 1994, with Abramjee it’s his stint at the House of Delegates in the 1980s. This is effective from the point of view of the people making these attacks, because it is impossible for a minority to deny being “racist”. What can Abramjee or Kohler Barnard say? That “some of their best friends are black”?
But this could also mean that members of minorities are simply pushed out of these debates altogether, and what they say is then judged only on their skin colour. Which is not really what we are supposed to be about.
And of course, people are highly selective about who they target. Kohler Barnard and Abramjee are attacked, but hardly anyone mentions that our very own Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng started out as a prosecutor for the Bophuthatswana government. This was the basis of an objection to his appointment by the National Association of Democratic Lawyers. It may be completely unfair to bring him up in this context, after all, he may well be able to argue that he did what he could from within the system. But others from that time could probably make that argument fairly convincingly as well. But then perhaps Abramjee and Kohler Barnard could do the same, if they were given the chance. One person who surely could not is Renier Schoeman, who was a deputy minister in the National Party government, and then moved, with breathtaking cynicism, to Luthuli House. Did he really change his attitudes in some magical moment, or does he just have acute political antennae?
Mothapo writes that this repost on a social media network is proof that the DA is racist. He is a communications manager for the ANC caucus in Parliament. Which presumably means that he has some control over the Twitter feed @ANCMPS. Which on the fourth of August this year tweeted this:
Caucus of ANC MPs (@ANCMPS) tweeted at 7:41am – 5 Aug 15:
You can tweet us your Wednesday Crush Member of Parliament. #WCMP
— Caucus of ANC MPs (@ANCMPS) August 5, 2015
And then, in reply to a query, tweeted this:
Caucus of ANC MPs (@ANCMPS) tweeted at 8:22am – 5 Aug 15:
— Caucus of ANC MPs (@ANCMPS) August 5, 2015
Would it be wrong then to change his attack on the DA slightly to suggest that this social media posting is proof that the ANC is sexist? And even if he were to say that male MPs were perved over another day, is it really befitting a ruling party to be considering the physical attributes of political representatives? Surely it’s prejudice of the highest order to judge someone on how they look. Full stop.
What is clear from this little spat is that temperatures are rising in our politics, anything someone does wrong is going to be jumped on. This is surely an indication that the stakes are rising too. And that people are playing the game for keeps, because there is much for them to lose.
Which was not necessarily the case a few years ago, when nothing seemed to matter to the final result. Times indeed change in South African politics. DM