The politics of apology
By Rudi Buys
The statement “we profusely humble ourselves where we went wrong” may well become a defining declaration of the politics that will surface in the run-up to the forthcoming local government elections, and even determine its outcome.
The line was part of an announcement by the ANC regarding a visit of senior party members to Zimbabwe.
The visit caused public uproar, complaints to the public protector, and an official report on the matter requested by the president from the minister of defence and military veterans.
The delegation not only broke national lockdown regulations but also made use of an SANDF aircraft for the trip to Harare.
Commentators quickly framed the incident as a scandal since it took place within a week following the decision by the national executive committee of the ANC that party members who are facing charges of corruption should immediately step aside from leadership positions.
Ace Magashule, ANC secretary-general, with an apologetic air, announced that the party will reimburse government for the flight and that the delegation is under quarantine, in line with lockdown regulations.
Whether the party’s response to the uproar will dispel public fears remains to be seen, but what the scandal and steps to remedy the situation do hint at is an emerging type of political performance that may have a telling impact on campaigning and decisions of the electorate - a “politics of apology”.
The more traditional politics of campaigning aims to win the vote by discrediting opponents’ trustworthiness and capability to govern.
A politics of apology aims to do so by recasting the sense of its core identity of a party and its representatives, and of the nation and its electorate.
One way of making sense of the apologetic stance taken by Magashule is to consider the struggle of “recasting” to emerge in the face of campaigning to discredit - in this case it is the battle between the claims of a scandal and claims of an honest mistake.
The need to recast the public narratives of a party and the political personas of its representatives not only follows particular incidents that adversely impact public and citizen perceptions of the collective.
It also develops in tune with and as similar incidents and claims of misconduct in public continue over time. Especially when it continues with increasing severity, irrespective of its smaller and larger scale, across diverse constituencies, the urgency to recast intensifies.
Equally so, in order to recast a political collective, campaigns to shape the broader narratives of the party and its leaders must intensify over time.
Such politics does not avoid the fact of claims of corruption against the party or its members.
Rather, in the electorate’s eye, when a party through its leaders, offer an apology and does so authentically, its narrative and persona shift from being the accused to standing alongside citizens - it gains and shares the moral high ground of the electorate.
Its first major achievement is that it reforms the “terms of membership” of a political collective - to be a member in good standing, you need to gain moral standing, most effectively gained through public performances of accountability.
Party leaders, therefore, must increasingly at all levels of state and society engage the “ritual of apology” - public apologies for falling short in serving citizens, and actions to correct it, or simply put: when you say you’re sorry, mean it, and then do the right thing, citizens will vote for you.
* Buys is the executive dean of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor of the African Journal of Non-profit Higher Education.