Former communications minister Dina Pule. File photo: Neil Baynes

The punishment meted out to Dina Pule was inadequate, writes Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - She wasn’t scheduled to speak and didn’t have to. But former communications minister Dina Pule thought it necessary to ask, through her chief whip Stone Sizani, to address Parliament following her public dressing-down.

“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.”

What, I wondered, should we make of this non-apology apology? What do you say when an apology is not an apology? Was she trying to give us her generic expression of regret? Does she feel guilty about what she did? If so, about what exactly? Is she ashamed of her conduct and wishes not to repeat it? What did she think her words would achieve in relation to what apologies are meant to achieve?

What makes her language of contrition rather perplexing is that she claims not to know that she did something wrong. Naturally, it would be wrong to apologise for not doing wrong or for an unknown wrong.

For the record, the half-hearted apology came in the wake of her being found guilty of “failing to declare her relationship with Mr Phosane Mngqibisa” and the fact that he “received material benefits which are financial and otherwise” and thus “broke the rules of the code of conduct of Parliament”.

ANC MP Ben Turok, the ethics committee co-chairman, said Pule had embarked on a spirited campaign to cover her tracks, ably assisted by senior officials. “Throughout the hearings,” said Turok, “it was clear that there was collusion between Honourable Pule and some senior officials in presenting a false version of her activities.”

From her failed attempt at a false version of which Turok speaks follows an apology, sort of.

If there is punishment that Pule has suffered, it is certainly not one imposed by Parliament – or her colleagues. The less said about the rock star treatment she received after her “apology”, the better. We should recoil from such exercises, which make a mockery of accountability. The real and deserved punishment Pule received is one occasioned by public scorn and the ANC’s apparent unwillingness to be seen doing the right thing about her.

That the punishment meted out by Parliament was inadequate is a no-brainer. What seemed to get a few good people excited is that her party seemed unperturbed by her conduct.

“Parliament has taken its stand,” said the ANC’s Andrew Mlangeni, head of the integrity committee. It is important to note that Mlangeni is no Johnny come lately to the ANC and the Struggle: he served time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

He knows people who died, who were tortured, who disappeared, who sacrificed much for this democracy to be birthed. His committee was established at the party’s Mangaung conference, amid promises of fire and brimstone against those who bring its good name into disrepute.

Now Mlangeni has mellowed. “The committee (Turok’s) that investigated her issued a statement. The issue of comrade Pule has been dealt with.”

Nuff said. You’ve got to be sad.

How could that be enough? And where is the party disciplinary committee?

When former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and his troopers tried to sound intellectual and pontificated on matters of international relations – expressing a view consistent with young and not so mature minds – the party unleashed its might against them.

They didn’t spend our rand and cents on girlfriends, but were shown the door. When a minister uses our taxes to transport her young lover around the globe, the party becomes reticent. Its voice as a champion of the underclass escapes it. Mlangeni suddenly can’t remember what this Struggle was about. He, like those who gave Pule the rock star treatment, closes ranks.

When a minister gives a R6-million tender to her lover, Mlangeni tells us: “The issue of comrade Pule has been dealt with.” Really? All those years in Robben Island? All these young people who died fighting for freedom – like Solomon Mahlangu – deserve this non-apology and slap on the wrist, comrade Mlangeni?

The obvious message this sends out to society is simple. You can mess with our taxes, which are supposed to help the poor, and the party will give you no more than a slap on the wrist. A non-apology secures your place in the hearts of your comrades.

In our country, we know that quasi-apologies are invariably followed by exhortations that we must celebrate the fact that “it takes a great individual to say sorry”, as if saying sorry itself comes with abstract rights to, or certainty of, forgiveness.

But for an apology to even be considered, it must meet very basic requirements.

Apologies that are sincere, that are felt, have particularities that show what a person is apologising for and, almost invariably, contain a promise not to repeat a similar thing.

In Pule’s case, it is impossible to know what she is sorry about, as she was decidedly vague and noncommittal about her apology.

This is important because the erosion of public trust in public institutions, including Parliament, will, wrongly, be blamed on the media when, in fact, people like Pule show us the middle finger when they have been found guilty of such serious breaches. And, to boot, they are given rock star treatment by those who should recoil from Pule’s conduct.

If Pule was encumbered perhaps by the possibility of this matter going to court later on, then she should have kept her mouth shut. Nothing and no one forced her to speak.

To apologise because one party feels aggrieved, and not because you believe you have erred, is to insult the intelligence of the receiver of the apology.

For that apology is conditional. It does not symbolise contrition. And how could it, when, in the first place, the wrongdoer does not acknowledge that she has done wrong?

It is almost like a peace offering that is, in fact, a poisoned chalice.

Pule must know it is enough that she is guilty of spoiling her lover with our taxes and, if she doesn’t want to make a proper apology, should keep her mouth shut. In that way, we are spared her insults. - The Star

* Makhudu Sefara is the editor of The Star newspaper.

** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.