Mbali Ntuli and the fine line some DA members must walk on social media

Mbali Ntuli faced charges for breaching the Democratic Alliance's social media policy after she allegedly 'liked' a comment on Facebook in December that called Western Cape Premier Helen Zille a racist. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Mbali Ntuli faced charges for breaching the Democratic Alliance's social media policy after she allegedly 'liked' a comment on Facebook in December that called Western Cape Premier Helen Zille a racist. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

NEWS ANALYSIS

KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature member Mbali Ntuli faced charges on Friday for breaching the Democratic Alliance’s social media policy after she allegedly “liked” a comment on Facebook in December that called Western Cape Premier Helen Zille a racist. 

Despite the DA legal commission’s advice to not proceed with charges, federal executive chairman James Selfe reportedly said the matter will be investigated to “ensure consistency”. Other party members, such as Dianne Kohler Barnard, have been investigated and faced the disciplinary panel. (Barnard shared on her Facebook page a post from someone else suggesting that life was better under apartheid president PW Botha.) 

Ntuli’s social media move, deemed controversial by some political and media analysts, is one of a string of Facebook and Twitter posts and shared articles made by members of various political parties that have raised eyebrows. 

Recent examples include Zille’s debatable tweets regarding the positive effects of colonialism, a Facebook post by Lumka Oliphant (spokeperson to Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini) that said Dlamini was not an alcoholic and called some mothers “whores”, and former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor allegedly writing a post on Facebook calling President Jacob Zuma a “coward”.

Ntuli’s social media move is different because it was a “like” and not a post or repost of an article. But even more curious is that the DA said it would continue investigating the matter against the advice of its legal commission. 

Political analysts argue that, as a representative of the political party, one of the responsibilities is to be an ambassador for the party, which requires individuals to monitor what they do over public forums, such as Twitter and Facebook.

“If you’re going to take on a role as a party representative, there is an important caveat with that - and that’s [that] you represent the party. So what you say, particularly on public forums and Twitter - and Twitter is a public forum - is the same as publishing something in a newspaper ... there are potential repercussions for what is said,” said Fiona Anciano, senior lecturer in the department of political sciences at University of Western Cape.

Anciano said the DA is probably even more sensitive to identity issues in the party, given the type of demographics it is trying to target as potential members.

“Currently, the DA tends to be more cautious, or more proactive, depending on how you want to frame it, around representatives’ comments because the DA is conscious of race issues and their optics. They have to be more careful about identity optics, and of what they’re seen to say in the media and in public,” Anciano said.

Although the move by the DA to continue its investigation is regarded as ill-advised by some political analysts, political parties have autonomy to discipline people in their own way.

“And that will obviously have consequences for the party,” said Victoria Bronstein, associate professor in the School of Law at the University of Witwatersrand.

Bronstein explained that although Ntuli has a right to express herself as an individual, it does affect her rights in the DA.

“I mean, [investigating] the issue that she liked a Facebook post is extremely punitive, and I imagine if you proceeded with that and succeeded, it would have consequences within the party. All of this is unchartered territory - liking posts, sharing posts, freedom of expression over the internet. It’s all very new,” she added.

Ralph Mathekga, research director at the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection, said the fact that controversial social media moves are not new to the DA or other political parties reflects challenges in an internal democracy. 

He said that rather than trying to censor political party members, individuals should be allowed to dissent freely in the party while still upholding the values of that political party. “For me, there should not be values within the political party that supercede the values of South Africa. They [the DA] cannot adopt rules that go against the Constitution.”

He argued that, because “the rules and regulations are not clear”, there were double standards in how different cases were handled.

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