South Africa

South Africa

The Art of the Apology: Why Zille’s climbdown was a significant political moment

The Art of the Apology: Why Zille’s climbdown was a significant political moment

Does Western Cape Premier Helen Zille still believe there were positive spin-offs from colonisation? Is she justified in saying the ravages of the Holocaust and colonialism cannot be compared? Perhaps it’s best not to prompt outbreaks of human combustion among sections of the population by getting into those particular twisters. The important question is this: what is the significance of Zille’s apology at this moment in time with South Africa in free-fall? Zille and Jacob Zuma are among a handful of South African politicians who apologised for their actions – Zuma has done so on three occasions. But Zille was forced to humble herself in a way no other political leader has been made to do. That is noteworthy, particularly when political accountability is so eroded. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

“I want to say to this House that I gave the best I could do to do my job, and that if in the course of me doing my job I made a mistake, I am sorry, I apologise.”

Without even knowing who said this, you can tell by the word “if” that this was not an unreserved apology. The offending politician was former Communications Minister Dina Pule who was found guilty of ethical violations and contravening the Constitution by using her Cabinet position to benefit her boyfriend. ANC Members of Parliament applauded Pule’s apology and then hugged her for saying sorry for her booboo.

Mercifully, Pule disappeared off the political scene shortly after the fiasco.

President Jacob Zuma has made three separate apologies to the nation. The first was after he was acquitted of rape in May 2006 when he apologised for having sex with an HIV positive woman.

“I wish to state categorically and place on record that I erred in having unprotected sex. I should have known better,” Zuma said at the time. He did so of his own volition at a time when the country was distressed and battered in the aftermath of the trial.

A few months later, he had to apologise again after he made homophobic comments at Heritage Day celebrations in KwaZulu-Natal. Zuma reportedly said that when he was growing up “an ungqingili (gay person) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out”.

In a statement thereafter, Zuma said he did not intend his comments to be interpreted as a condemnation of gays and lesbians.

“I also respect, acknowledge and applaud the sterling contribution of many gay and lesbian compatriots in the struggle that brought about our freedom and the role they continue to play in the building of a successful non-racial, non-discriminatory South Africa,” Zuma said in the statement.

At the time, Zuma was firmly in the running for the presidency of the ANC so the apologies were necessary damage control measures to keep his campaign on track.

His “apology” for Nkandla last year was cosmetic, mostly to give the ANC a crutch with which to limp away from the damning Constitutional Court judgment.

“The matter has caused a lot of frustration and confusion, for which I apologise, on my behalf and on behalf of government,” Zuma said on April 1, 2016. This was over two years after the release of the Public Protector’s report on the upgrades at his Nkandla home.

Zuma’s apology was a qualified one. It was not for the wastage of taxpayers’ money, for disrespecting a Chapter Nine institution, for turning Parliament into a circus, for violating the Constitution or for treating South Africans with contempt. He did not even apologise to his own organisation for bringing it into disrepute and putting ANC MPs in the invidious position of having to defend the indefensible.

Zuma’s apology was for the “frustration and confusion” caused. After violating the Constitution, which constitutes a breach of his oath of office, he walked away from the Nkandla debacle without even a slap on the wrist. Of course, he was made to pay R7.8-million to the state, but that was money he should have paid for the upgrades to his private home anyway.

Based on his response to the Nkandla matter and his general contempt for political accountability, Zuma will never acknowledge his role or apologise for surrendering control of the state to his friends the Guptas. 

A few other politicians have made apologies. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema and general secretary of the newly formed South African Federation of Trade Unions Zwelinzima Vavi both apologised to former President Thabo Mbeki for their role in supporting Zuma to become president. They did so to complete the transition from the role of lead campaigners in Zuma’s rise to power to his arch nemeses.

Vavi also made a public apology after having sex with a co-worker while he was Cosatu general secretary.

“I have erred and in the process embarrassed my family and disappointed many South Africans who looked to me to provide moral leadership,” Vavi said. He was fighting for survival in Cosatu at the time but the apology did not help him keep his position.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has also been on the mea culpa bus.

In September 2012 he apologised for bidding R19.5-million on a buffalo cow and calf. “It was a mistake to even put up my hand to do so. I’ve been chastised by some of my good comrades. And even before they chastised me I did admit it was a mistake,” Ramaphosa said. “It is a mistake in the sea of poverty. I live in a community… The damage has been done, I will live with it.”

In the same radio interview, Ramaphosa expressed regret and sadness at the deaths of 34 mineworkers in the Marikana massacre. Recently, Ramaphosa apologised for the “inappropriate language” he used during the strike at Marikana. Addressing professionals and academics at Rhodes University, Ramaphosa said he had apologised before and was still sorry.

“I then said: we need to prevent this from happening. And yes, I may well have used unfortunate language in the messages I sent out and for which I have apologised, and for which I do apologise that I did not use appropriate language.”

Asked in Parliament to explain what he apologised for, Ramaphosa said it was for the language he used in emails calling for action against the striking workers.

“The intervention I was seeking to make was to stop further killings from happening… As a leader, I know I have to be accountable for what I do and what I say.”

Ramaphosa also said he wanted to visit the families of the deceased workers and was taking guidance from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on the matter. The deputy president’s apology comes fives years after the massacre and a few months before he will contest the presidency of the ANC. The motivation is therefore quite transparent.

So there is a pattern of political leaders making apologies because it is expedient to do so.

Helen Zille would have preferred to ride her high horse into infamy rather than make the climbdown she did this week. Her initial response following her tweet scolding those who claimed the legacy of colonialism was only negative was to claim the outrage was misplaced. She claimed the tweet was taken out of context.

As condemnation grew and opposition to her began mounting within the Democratic Alliance, she posted the following message: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

It could have ended there had she not continued to defend and justify her initial tweet. Her “remedy” therefore became as problematic as the initial offence. 

Mmusi Maimane has only been leader of the DA for two years and this episode was a major test to his leadership. His abhorrence to Zille’s colonialism tweetstorm was clear from the get-go but that did not dissuade her from turning it into a full-blown crisis for the DA.   

When the DA attempted to discipline Zille, she fought back – Maimane didn’t help things by announcing the wrong procedure. In a nine-page letter motivating why she should not be suspended‚ Zille claimed she was being dealt with harshly because she was “not black”.

She refused to recognise the damage she was doing to the party, claiming it was “of its own doing”. She also said that excluding her from sharing the successes of the Western Cape government would have a negative effect on the DA’s performance in 2019.

Zille used the backing of her supporters as leverage to try to strong-arm the DA retreat or face the prospect of splitting the party. After navigating a race minefield, the DA leadership was plunged into a new dilemma over alienating its base constituency of liberal whites. At the same time, pressure was building from some black supporters in the DA as well as other political parties that Zille should be fired as premier.

This was a spectacular sideshow at a time when the ANC is convulsing from the Gupta state capture revelations and the economic crisis.

And then it was pulled back. A “political solution” was negotiated just as the issue was about to detonate and leave a large portion of white liberals politically homeless. Maimane and Zille trundled out in a joint media briefing that saw the former DA leader publicly declawed.

The crux of Maimane’s statement was this:

“It was important to me that Helen offered the South African public a fulsome and unqualified apology, and I am glad to say that she is now prepared to do that. Her willingness to admit wrongdoing and apologise is a quality that I believe sets her apart from many other political leaders in our country.”

Zille also agreed to vacate her position on all decision-making structures of the party, including the federal executive, the federal council and the provincial council. She got to keep her position as Western Cape premier.

From calling the DA processes “a sham”, Zille submitted herself to the will of the leadership of the party.

“After a period of debate and reflection, I recognise the offence caused by my tweet on the 16th of March 2017 with regards to the legacy of colonialism. I therefore apologise unreservedly to the South African public who were offended by this tweet and my subsequent explanation of it,” she said.

Her apology was directed at those who were offended by the tweet and therefore somewhat qualified. Her actions throughout the saga had caused distress to South Africans, her party and her own supporters – even those who might not have been offended by the initial tweet.

But that does not take away from the import of this apology. No South African leader has been made to prostrate themselves in this way before. No other leader has been made to apologise and be stripped of their political powers only to become a government functionary. And no other politician has had their communications restricted to the ambit of their government work, with the party having to sign off on all other messaging.

This was not how Zille would have wanted to spend the twilight years of her political career. She is a proud and stubborn woman with a superiority complex. Maimane might be the rookie groomed by her but he took her on and won.

There is nobody who knows this better than the fiercest voice in South African politics. Julius Malema threatened to withdraw the EFF’s vote in municipalities governed by the DA if the party did not fire Zille. But after Tuesday’s DA press conference, the EFF withheld comment on that particular issue although it remained scathing of Zille. The EFF realised what Maimane had pulled off by publicly chastening Zille. An ugly legal battle in the DA or instability in the Western Cape government would have had consequences for all opposition parties trying to work together against the ANC. 

Yes, Zille did not lose her job. Yes, she was prodded into the U-turn. And yes, unlike Zuma’s deeds, there were no financial losses and criminality involved. So there are still a lot of dissatisfied people across the political spectrum.

But this was a significant political moment where a politician was dressed down by her own political party and made to say sorry for her actions. It raised the bar for political accountability in South Africa just a little higher. For our besieged nation, that is progress. DM

Photo: Photo: Helen Zille (Greg Nicolson)


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