We must do our part to expose manipulative non-apologetic excuses. If we don’t, the problem will persist, writes Nick Clelland
Cape Town - Everyone makes mistakes. And if the mistake is big enough or bad enough to make it into the public domain, the best and most universal advice is what you learnt growing up: “Say you’re sorry.”
In the past 20 years, we have experienced more than our fair share of opportunities to apologise for errors made.
Why are South Africans so bad at public apology?
One would think that our politicians and government – overwhelmed by blunders, failure and incompetence – would have at least learnt how to say sorry. If not from a place of noble sincerity, then at least to wriggle out of whatever hole they’d dug.
Either they can’t or just won’t.
Former communications minister Dina Pule said sorry to Parliament and the nation: “I want to say to this house I did the best I could to do my job, and if I made a mistake, I want to apologise.”
Prefacing her apology with “if I made a mistake” is the hallmark of the classic non-apology apology. It’s arrogant and calculating.
But who can really blame her, when President Jacob Zuma is as devious with his so-called regret. Responding to comments he’d made about gays and lesbians, he apologised “for the pain and anger that my remarks may have caused…”. Textbook apology chicanery: apologising for the feelings caused and not the statements themselves.
Less subtle, yet arguably as effective and manipulative, Julius Malema used an apology to clobber the ANC: “I’ve made a terrible mistake and I am trying everything in my power to reverse that… we will do everything in our power to correct this terrible mistake we committed in Polokwane… we once more sincerely apologise for having given you a president like Zuma.”
While politicians operate in a cut-and-thrust environment where perceived weakness is pounced upon with alacrity, the condition isn’t limited to them – corporate South Africa doesn’t do much better.
Criticised for a homophobic Flora margarine advert, Unilever was quick to respond – not with an apology but a swift repudiation of its advertising agency: “…The advert is offensive and unacceptable… was prepared by an external agency… and was not approved by anyone at Unilever…” said a spokesman. Unilever is a multinational, million-dollar company – the advertising equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” doesn’t wash.
Earlier this year, First National Bank employed a mischievous tag-team apology-and-denial move to wriggle out of the furore caused by the various responses to their “you can help” video messages campaign.
First into the ring went FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana, who placated the furious ANC when he “agreed that the research clippings that were posted online were regrettable” and then apologised “for the posting of the research clippings online”.
The ANC duly pacified, the result was an outcry from the public accusing the bank of backing down to political bullying.
Enter FNB chief executive Michael Jordaan with: “We have not apologised for the advert”.
A clever – albeit crafty – tag team of public apology and immediate denial aimed more at calming the waters than expressing any sort of regret.
When FHM staffers Max Barashenkov and Montle Moroosi issued a statement apologising for their comments on correctional rape it started off well.
But the paragraphs that followed took the sorry state of the public apology to a new low: “The media madness that was unleashed over the posting of our private, and do keep in mind that it was private …conversation was surreal in the sense that it received a lot more attention, social media reach and established media buzz than actual cases of rape…” It didn’t wash – the public backlash was immediate and brutal and both quickly found themselves relieved of their FHM posts. Has our tolerance for connivance and manipulation been distended to the point where something as disgraceful as the FHM apology is where the line in the sand is drawn? Are we happy to be bombarded with low-level manipulation, denials and delinquency?
It would be fair to reply that in a country where identity politics still reigns, voters don’t and won’t (and without direct representation, can’t) punish poor performance from our politicians.
But our acceptance of the manipulative non-apology reaches into our daily lives.
We accept waiters who justify bad service or unpalatable food as much as we are subdued by the attendant who shrugs their shoulders and blames the computer or the machinery. And it will continue unchecked until all of us, collectively, call for the manager, write letters of complaint and hold those we trust to account.
For their part, an honest introspection and commitment to treating us with the respect we deserve will go a long way to putting things right. That and a simple and sincere, “I’m sorry”.
* Nick Clelland is the chief executive of Resolve Communications and former head of communications in Premier Helen Zille’s administration.
** The views expressed here are niot necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.