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The Other News Round-Up: Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the stranger happenings from South Africa and further afield. This week: the non-apology.

As South Africans reel from the sheer, inexpressible horror of the death of Courtney Pieters, the family of a murdered child in Magadi, India, faced a different kind of brazenness. Following the brutal killing of 10-year-old Ayesha, traditional healer Naseem Taj and three others were arrested for murdering the girl in an alleged attempt to cure the co-accused’s brother from paralysis. Not in the least abashed, apparently, the accused’s family blithely approached the victim’s family, offering them their own two children as compensation if Ayesha’s relatives would be so kind as to drop the murder case.

Whisky, tango, foxtrot. If you’re blinking to check you read correctly, you’re not alone.

According to New Indian Express, Ayesha’s father Shafi Ullah said, “[The accused] said he was ready to compensate us for the death of our daughter by giving one of his daughters, a classmate of Ayesha, to us so that we give up the case.

We outrightly declined his proposal and told him that we will send a strong message to the society about such heinous practices. He then offered to give us his eight-year-old son too, but we did not agree.” Well, obviously not, right? If you want people to agree to that sort of thing, you have to throw in at least a PortaPool, a PlayStation and an extra cousin.

I’m trying to envision the kind of person who murders your child for muti, attempts to buy you off by trading in their own kid, and then stomps off as though you’re being unreasonable when you don’t take advantage of their generous offer. (I’d be tempted to try to get those poor kids out of Dodge, though, and fast.) The answer is glaring, though: the same person who would murder a kid in the first place. If children are little more than ingredients to them, property to be sacrificed literally or metaphorically as needed, should we be surprised that they think they deserve to get away with it? When they turn out to be known to the family, the friend, the healer, or the listening ear? When we’re dealing with this kind of person, why is it so shocking to us when insult is added to injury?

In practical terms, we expect regret because we understand that a failure to be sorry means there’s a greater chance that the person will re-offend. This is common sense in most relationships and interactions, but it’s also a subject of study in the analysis of criminal behaviour. Shame, alongside its cousins, guilt and remorse, is a “critical stepping-stone” towards rehabilitation. For most of us, the default setting is to forgive. Because hey, we all make mistakes and sometimes we need a little help to turn back. (Just ask this grandmother, who took a wrong turn and drove another 300km to Scotland.) We like to believe in mistakes, contexts, reasons for inexplicable behaviour. It gives us the illusion of control. So faced with someone who yanks that expectation out from under us by being utterly shameless – well, it knocks us off our perch.

And yet the non-apology is breeding faster than you can say “#sorrynotsorry”. Regret is so yesterday when you have the option of pointing at the other guy. Both our president and our former opposition leader spring to mind: surely Helen Zille’s multiple justifications of her colonialism tweets rank up there with the foremost fauxpologies. More recently, Jacob Zuma plaintively explained that he couldn’t possibly correct his mistakes if nobody ever told him what he did wrong.

[People say] there is a problem in our country; as they say, ‘There is a crisis’. Why? What has happened?” Zuma asked. “No one has come out to say Zuma has done this and that,” he said. Tell that to Thuli Madonsela.

But hey, maybe Zuma is just a really optimistic fellow. It’s possible, I guess, that he thought all those people shouting “Zuma Must Fall!” were just parents who had been forced through one too many episodes of Paw Patrol.

The non-apology is not always verbal, I think. It’s all-round sleight of hand, a twirl that neatly places accountability anywhere but where it belongs. Sometimes it’s minimising – ask Sean Spicer about that “mistake” he made saying Hitler could have been worse. (Spicer’s ineptitude at explaining has given rise to a new décor craze: Spicer cutouts you can conceal in your bushes.) Sometimes it’s playing the victim. What’s that Hlaudi Motsoeneng complained about? Being unemployable, neatly quoting the DA’s assessment of him for his own benefit – nice touch. The current disciplinary hearing at the SABC is an “abuse [of process] stemming from ulterior motives”, he added.

Sometimes it’s a habit, a persistently unapologetic way of being. Sometimes it it’s grounds for an eye-roll (Shia le Beouf, I’m looking at you) and sometimes for outrage. The continuum is gradual and incidents like the murders of Ayesha and Courtney Pieters, where the brazenness of the suspected perpetrators stun us, tend to sneak up. But maybe they shouldn’t. In South Africa, we have so many examples where horrific loss of life (Marikana, Life Esidimeni) or the endangering of millions of people (the social grants crisis) are shrugged off with, at best, inadequate explanations, and compensation which is either non-existent, somehow lacking, or downright insulting. Those moments where we encounter the starkly remorseless are spikes of fury in a much broader context, where the failure of accountability is too often normalised.

So maybe the non-apology, no matter how insignificant, should never be allowed to pass, because it desensitises us. It is never benign. Whether it’s a celebrity plagiarising his tweets or a major failure of the healthcare system, #notsorry shouldn’t be good enough. The everyday, run-of-the-mill non-fauxpologies we have come to expect teach us that not accepting responsibility is normal. That injustice, big or small, can be bought or explained away. That passing the buck is a gold standard; that the victim is guilty if they don’t forgive the unforgivable. It’s pervasive and insidious, and at its extreme, unimaginably monstrous. Where the non-apology wants us to forget, a demand for accountability will help us remember. No, this is not just all in a day’s news. DM


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