Kohler Barnard sacking ‘disproportionate’
Johannesburg - The expulsion of DA stalwart Dianne Kohler Barnard has been met with shock and dismay in some quarters of the party – especially her home province of KwaZulu-Natal – with some calling the sanction harsh or disproportionate.
This comes after the DA federal executive grappled with what sanction to impose on Kohler Barnard for four hours on Friday evening, eventually choosing to increase the punishment proposed by the party’s federal legal commission and give the embattled MP the boot.
Word within the party was that the decision had been opposed by a third of federal commission members and sources in KZN said it would cause divisions in the province.
This was denied by provincial leader Zwakele Mncwango, however, who said: “There is nothing new about the Kohler Barnard case and I’m quite confident that her sacking will not have any negative impacts on the party in KZN.”
His predecessor, Sizwe Mchunu, who is a known ally of Kohler Barnard, said he reserved his opinion on the matter.
“Many people know that Dianne and I have been close friends for a long time. I feel for her, that’s all I’m prepared to say,” he said.
Senior DA MP and the party’s former federal chairman, Wilmot James, was the only DA member prepared to speak on record in her support, saying he felt the decision was “disproportionate and wrong”.
While agreeing that the MP’s sharing of a Facebook post calling for the return of apartheid tyrant PW Botha had been a “monumental blunder”, he said she was “a democrat and a distinguished and effective member of the opposition”.
The decision to demote her – from her position as police spokeswoman to deputy spokeswoman on public works – had been the “appropriate response”.
“What has happened subsequent to the decision of the federal legal commission is disproportionate,” James said.
But party insiders said the DA was making a sustained effort to shake off perceptions that it remained a party of whites, including dispelling assertions it was out of touch with the black electorate.
They said her redeployment from the police portfolio had been aimed at boosting the party’s strategy of demonstrating effective legislative capabilities.
“She was perceived as shrill,” one DA member said, while another said she had failed to approach her police portfolio “holistically”.
The aim was for community safety issues to be prioritised, as the party geared up for next year’s municipal elections, as opposed to the “personal vendettas” championed by Kohler Barnard, targeted at national commissioner Riah Phiyega and before that, crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.
James said he didn’t know what had informed the federal executive’s decision, but it had the potential to divide the party and needed to be properly managed.
“A bit of wisdom needs to prevail,” James said. “I hope it is appealed and that it’s successful.”
Contacted for her comment, Kohler Barnard said in an SMS: “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I am appealing.”
Glynnis Breytenbach, chairwoman of the DA federal legal commission, which heard the case – in which the MP pleaded guilty to charges of misconduct, bringing the party into disrepute and violating its social media policy – said Kohler Barnard had a right to appeal.
She said the appeal would be heard by the full federal legal commission, which would make its recommendations to the federal executive, chaired by James Selfe.
“If she loses the appeal, then it will be the end of the road for her, unless she forwards this matter to court,” Breytenbach said.
Selfe said Kohler Barnard would continue her party duties pending the outcome of the appeal.
Political analyst Professor Shadrack Gutto said the DA should be commended for taking firm action.
“The DA did something very courageous by terminating her membership. They had to act harshly against her to send a message across that the DA doesn’t support racism,” he said.
Gutto said he didn’t foresee Kohler Barnard winning her appeal.
“She must just bite the bullet. It’s difficult for her to win on the basis that she had earlier pleaded guilty to the charges brought against her,” he said.
Political analyst, Bheki Mngomezulu, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said: “Appealing this ruling is not going to help her.
“She is fighting a losing battle. If I were her I would drop the appeal,” Mngomezulu said.
He said Kohler Barnard’s sacking would have some negative impact for the party, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Her constituency is in KZN and it will be interesting to see how her allies will react. But I can smell a split,” he said.
The Sunday Tribune reported last week that party members behind a Facebook group created in support of Kohler Barnard had been told to delete it or face the full wrath of the party.
Critics of the expulsion of Kohler Barnard have also pointed to the slap on the wrist handed to MP Archibald Figlan, found guilty of sexual harassment after forcing a woman to touch his crotch during a protest march outside Parliament earlier this year. He got a suspended sentence.
DA spokeswoman Phumzile van Damme said the punishment meted out to Kohler Barnard was not disproportionate compared to the disciplinary findings against Figlan or former spokesman Marius Redelinghuys.
She said the party’s social media policy had been approved in November last year and this was the first major infringement of it.
Meanwhile, the ANC dismissed the move as a public relations stunt.
While “on the face of it” the decision appeared “principled”, ANC caucus spokesman, Moloto Mothapo, said it would “do little to cleanse itself of its twin demons of racism and apartheid rule”.
He pointed to the lack of similar action against DA deputy chief whip Mike Waters who, following last year’s general elections, tweeted a picture of dogs queuing to urinate on a poster of President Jacob Zuma, which included the words: “Voting Day. Make your mark.”
Other incidents included Western Cape MPL Theuns Botha having referred to an ANC MPL as “’n bobbejaan” (baboon), a DA councillor in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro who referred to a fellow UDM councillor as “councillor bobbejaan”, and DA councillors who referred to one of their own members in Tshwane, Winston Campbell, as a “hottentot”.
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