Nene’s was the perfect apology

Our history is littered with bad apologies. There’s Hansie Cronje’s tearful effort after being bust for match fixing. Then there’s FW de Klerk double to the TRC for apartheid and all the hurt and pain it caused – only to qualify it by saying state sponsored murder and torture had never been part of government policy.

Last Friday, Nhlanhla Nene apologised, not just for seeing the infamous Guptas, but for not disclosing the number of times he did. He didn’t call it social cohesion either. Then he did something that sadly is unprecedented in this country, he asked to be released from his duties as a cabinet minister. This week President Cyril Ramaphosa gave him his wish.

I’ve been married for a quarter century, I understand the art of saying sorry, believe me.

Nene’s was the perfect apology. It covered the areas that he was accused of. He accepted full responsibility. He asked for forgiveness. He showed remorse – and he literally walked the talk.

Only the truly mean-spirited will kick a person after an apology like that. There’s plenty of them though, but their actions tell everyone else a lot more about them than they think.

A good apology is sincere, it’s honest, it’s unequivocal – and it shouldn’t have to be wrung out of you using red hot pliers on your fingernails.

I might have practiced the art in matrimony, but I perfected it as a newspaper editor. We all do things wrong, sometimes we don’t mean to, at other times (with a doff of the cap to Cronje), the devil sometimes does make us do it. The key thing though is to be contrite and be honest when you find out that you’ve done wrong, do more than the ombud (in the case of a newspaper editor) might urge – if you know you were wrong.

Make a virtue out of it, as one of my previous bosses once taught me. (Ironically, he’s facing legal challenges of his own at the moment, but that’s a different story.) But there’s a limit on how often you can be virtuous. You can repent of your sins and be offered forgiveness, but for it to stick means not making the same mistake again – otherwise it becomes a total charade – much like going to confession on a Friday night before going on the tear for the entire weekend.

It’s about relationships. For newspapers it’s about ensuring your readers trust you – even if they get angry with you sometimes. For politicians, well I was going to say it’s about the voters, but for some of Nene’s erstwhile colleagues; especially Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane, they don’t seem to suffer the same burden of honour.

As writer Richard Poplak noted this week: “Make no mistake, Nhlanhla Nene is a dude. He screwed up. He came clean. He apologized. He resigned. All of this is exactly what South Africans should expect from public servants, and nothing more. The private sector awaits. He’ll be the least corrupt human in Sandton.”

Originally published on the 13th of October 2018 in the Saturday Star