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24 June 2017 12:25 (South Africa)
Opinionista Manqoba Nxumalo

When is an apology not acceptable in South Africa?

  • Manqoba Nxumalo
    manqoba-01.jpg
    Manqoba Nxumalo

    Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative reporter for the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent group of newspapers. He is also a Norway-based activist, with particular interest in issues of human rights and media freedom.

In South Africa, countless examples of politicians behaving badly have taught us that in Mzansi you can do and say as you please just as long as you apologise – even half-heartedly – afterwards.

Last week Helen Zille, the Western Cape Premier and former leader of the country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, felt the need to educate or rather remind victims of colonialism that they must not always look at the glass as being half empty.

She tweeted that colonialism was not all bad as it also produced good things like an independent judiciary and health system. Well and good Zille, except that the same judiciary was an instrument of enforcing colonial laws and dispossession. But she must be acknowledged for publicly saying what most whites privately believe.

But Zille knows this. She is a seasoned politician and would know her statements were reckless and misplaced in a country (and by extension continent) battling with the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. Imagine a politician in Israel, with German lineage, tweeting that Hitler’s fascism was not that bad to the Jewish community.

But Zille knew that in Africa, and South Africa in particular, an apology carries so much weight that not only do we forgive but we also forget. It was therefore expected that having tweeted such a reckless and insane statement she would apologise and the furore that initially met her tweet would die down. After all, South Africa produces a headline grabbing scandal every day. You need not worry about your controversy lasting more than three days in this Republic. Somewhere someone is plotting how to grab the headlines and overshadow your scandal. You don’t believe me? How long did the scandal of the banks who committed what I consider to be a treasonable offence last? Or even the leaked Public Protector report on the apartheid era bail out of Absa?

If you are a lazy thinker you will blame journalists and accuse them of not shining enough light on private white-collar crimes. The script goes that the media’s agenda is to portray black people as inherently corrupt. Well, that is the default response of the corrupt who want to turn the focus away from themselves. The truth is well known, most white-collar crime or even those committed by whites is adequately covered by the media proportionate to the fact that the ruling elite now is a black government and manage taxpayers’ money. There is therefore a higher onus to ensure the taxpayer’s money is adequately accounted for.

I was astounded at the hypocrisy that has followed the racist tweet and subsequent apology by Zille. Truth is, when exactly is an apology acceptable in South Africa? At least with regard Zille's tweet we know the EFF and the ANC are not taking the apology as genuine and want her head.

But when should society accept politicians’ apologies and “move on”? It was the self-same ANC that told the country to accept President Jacob Zuma’s lies that he paid for his own Nkandla compound. It was the ANC that said it is enough that Zuma broke his oath of office and, you guessed right, apologised. The EFF has bruises to show for trying to fight for that apology to be rejected.

Then there's Bathabile Dlamini. Having mobilised a vigilante of ANC Women's League airheads to defend her she finally accepted the superior logic of the Constitutional Court on the grants scandal. Guess what? She apologises and everyone is expected to accept and move on.

Andile Lungisa in the Nelson Mandela Bay took his apology a step further. After defying the ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s call not to stand for the regional leadership contest he penned a heartfelt apology for the things he said about Mantashe but later make it clear that his apology was not for defying Mantashe but for insulting him.

The ANC government in Gauteng killed mentally ill patients and simply apologised. No one has been held criminally liable yet. And only one politician has resigned.

But then again they have taken their cue from the head of state himself whose government killed people in Marikana and then apologised for it. No consequences what so ever, not even a staged resignation of some politicians. Nothing!

Zille is a serial offender and knows that her recourse is simply to apologise and we move on. Apologising was set as an official political narrative in South Africa when white people disposed of and killed black people over decades and then apologised, shook hands with the new black government and then went on to enjoy the benefits bequeathed by apartheid. That is why white South Africans, even those without land, are united in defending the few whites who own the majority of land even against assurances that redistribution of land will be done regardless of skin colour. Until South Africa rejects apologies that do not come with consequences politicians will continue to get away with murder. In the meantime let us cut Zille some slack. DM

  • Manqoba Nxumalo
    manqoba-01.jpg
    Manqoba Nxumalo

    Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative reporter for the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent group of newspapers. He is also a Norway-based activist, with particular interest in issues of human rights and media freedom.

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