Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In 2002, the Dutch government did a remarkable thing. On the release of a damning report from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, which laid much of the blame for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre on Dutch politicians, the entire Dutch cabinet resigned in a show of responsibility.

The Dutch government, then under prime minister Wim Kok, publicly acknowledged that it could have done more to prevent the slaughter of up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica by Serbian forces in 1995.

Dutch cabinet ministers have a long tradition of stepping down in cases of wrongdoing or ethical conflicts. In February this year the Dutch minister of foreign affairs stepped down after lying about a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In countries such as the Netherlands, for a politician to voluntarily take responsibility for their actions is so routine it is not even particularly newsworthy.

This tradition of prompt and voluntary resignation is virtually unknown in SA. Throughout the years of the Jacob Zuma rot, not a single minister implicated in the corruption resigned voluntarily. Even after the revelations made in Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers, even after the testimonies in the state-capture inquiry, ministers are sitting tight.

This is why the resignation of finance minister Nene is so important. Nene did another important thing. He apologised fairly soon after the news that he visited the Gupta house on several occasions became public. In a statement on October 5 he said: “These visits do cast a shadow on my conduct as a public office bearer. I deeply regret these lapses and beg for your forgiveness.”

Nene subsequently asked the president to relieve him of his duties. In light of Nene’s dishonesty and the fact that South Africans still do not know the full extent of Nene’s dealings with the Guptas, his resignation and apology should not be elevated to a heroic act. Zuma never apologised for any of his acts of wrongdoing. He remained in denial up to the end. But our moral baseline should not be so low that we elevate what is supposed to be normal behaviour of those serving the public to the realm of the heroic.

Apology becomes relevant when these rules or norms are disrupted or disturbed. By associating with the Guptas, Nene disturbed the social order

In many ways, Nene’s apology is even more significant than his resignation. While Nene’s apology does not diminish his culpability for associating with the plundering Guptas, nor for lying about it, it does have considerable moral and nation-building value.

An apology can be defined as an “acknowledgement and painful embracement of our deeds, coupled with a declaration of regret”. What distinguishes apology from justification is the acknowledgement of wrong-doing and the expressed absence of a defence for such wrongdoing

Why are public apologies of this kind so important? It is a sociological truism that every social order depends on a measure of commitment to norms dealing with standards of behaviour. Apology becomes relevant when these rules or norms are disrupted or disturbed. By associating with the Guptas, Nene disturbed the social order. We are members of a moral community and we seek apology if we have acted in a way that renders our membership of the moral community suspect.

According to US professor Martha Minow, apology as a form of symbolic reparation offers a path through the political, moral and legal morass. Apology fits into the paradigm of restorative justice, a paradigm that is already widely accepted within the field of transitional justice and is gaining ground in criminal law.

Because apology aims at the restoration of social relationships, it also fits the ongoing transitional project of reconciliation.

An interesting question is whether Nene’s apology, if he is found guilty by a court of law, would be accepted — this question will, however, not become relevant soon. In the short speech in which he announced Nene’s replacement, President Cyril Ramaphosa thanked Nene for “clean governance”. Under the circumstances, it is, of course, strange that Ramaphosa would thank Nene for being “clean”. One of the sad facts about the Nene resignation is that even those ANC members we considered clean are not.

While the impression exists that African leaders cling to power, African leaders have shown respect for the principle of resigning in the public interest. In the hours after Zuma’s resignation, for example, then Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned amid charges of mismanagement. Desalegne stated that he was resigning in the interest of democratic reforms.

It seems as if, in terms of moral governance, South African politicians are lagging behind on the African continent and beyond. The fact that both Zuma and Thabo Mbeki were forced out of office has tainted our political culture and the principle that leadership and change in leadership has to be legitimate and in the interest of democracy.

Swart is research director and the HSRC.