Columnists

Opinion: Double standards are the new cool

Verashni Pillay

Whatever happened to admitting you were wrong, asks Verashni Pillay, as she tracks the double standards of Moeletsi Mbeki, FNB, the ANC and more.

President Jacob Zuma. (AFP)

There's a new game in town, and it's called the double standard. Everyone is doing it, from the ruling to the opposition party, banks and government's fiercest critics.

It works something like this: protest loudly about some wrong or ill-gotten gain being committed by another. Sniffily accept the praise people direct your way for this endeavour. Then, when someone catches you out for the same thing, shout loudly and wave your arms. Scream "fire!" or similar to distract them. Or silence them.

A variation on this theme is a new form of extreme denial. Keep saying you didn't do it until someone shows you solid proof that you did … then continue insisting you didn't do it anyway.

It's novel, really.

Gone are the days when a remarkable politician was an honest one. These days I'd commend anyone who can say they're wrong and simply apologise, without growing increasingly belligerent, stalling, obfuscating or changing tack and making the exchange about something else entirely – such as their critics' attitudes, the collective injustice of the world or racism. Whatever they latch upon, it must be something sufficiently incendiary and totally unrelated to the situation.

I have to say, it's been a long, long time since I've seen a high-profile individual or organisation admit that they were wrong, apologise and make amends.

Which is bizarre if you think about it. Making mistakes is normal.

Yet you'd think it was blasphemy to say so. There's been something of a trend with double standards lately: a number of high-profile South African people and institutions have been badly caught out for making the mistakes they've nailed others for but have refused to back down in the face of clear evidence of their wrong-doing. Instead they grow increasingly stubborn, making the situation worse for themselves.

So in the interests of a better world, I'm dedicating this column to re-imagining how much easier life would be – for us and them – if they just tried saying sorry. Four scenarios, four solutions, you decide which you prefer.

Moeletsi Mbeki
South Africa's favourite intellectual has made a whoopsie. The Mail & Guardian revealed on Friday that the ruling party's harsh critic is accused of the very dubious BEE deals and shady actions to benefit his business partners that he faults the ruling elite for. Prince Mashele, former chief executive of Mbeki's think-tank, has accused the critic of delaying an unfavourable Cosatu report to save one of his business deals with the trade union federation's major affiliate, Numsa.

So far, so damning. Mbeki once said: "If you made me president of South Africa, the first thing I would do would be to scrap everything to do with black economic empowerment," and regularly takes aim at the ruling party for dodgy dealings.

  • How he responded to the allegations: Mbeki was absolutely incensed at the implied criticism and showed a flash of the authoritarian streak common to his more famous brother, former president Thabo Mbeki. He slammed off a sizzling letter to the M&G in response to our request for his side of the story, threatening legal action should the story be published. It was a rookie mistake. The man who preaches about an open and accountable democracy forgot his own lessons, and made a mountain out of a molehill by refusing to engage and throwing a tantrum instead.
  • How he should have responded: Mbeki should have come out and given his side of the story. Apologised. Or, if he didn't think an apology was necessary, explained himself. Instead he lost points by parodying the behaviour he has condemned in the past.

Helen Zille
There was a time when even Zille's critics were hard-pressed to pin down solid reasons why they didn't like her. Her actual political record was pretty clean, and all her opponents could take her down for was her attitude and her whiteness. But now the woman who has prided herself on her integrity has been guilty of some dangerous double-dealing.

She was labelled a hypocrite by the ANC for pulling out of a business breakfast hosted by the New Age newspaper – which is owned by the ANC-aligned Gupta family. Her decision to do so was based on newspaper reports that state-owned enterprises funded the breakfasts to the tune of millions of rands. But it later came to light that Zille attended a New Age Business Breakfast in 2012, knowing the event was sponsored by parastatal Telkom. And then, on Sunday, she refused to confirm if her party received several hundred thousand rands in donations from the Gupta family in 2011, as reported by the Weekend Argus.

  • How she responded: As is often the case with Zille, the fracas came to a head with a Twitter war late on Sunday night when people tried to get her to answer whether she had received funding or not. Zille point-blank refused to respond, claiming opposition parties would get no money if their donors were revealed. This is despite the fact that the Democratic Alliance has regularly demanded that the ANC be transparent about their donations. Clearly it's become a case of "show me yours and I'll show you mine."
  • How she should have responded: I thought Zille was getting better at saying she was wrong after one or two experiences of seeing her do so in person but in this case she is clearly refusing to back down. It's a pity. It would be refreshing for her to simply admit to receiving the donation if it was the case, admit the need for it and promise South Africans that, by revealing the truth, she would ensure we hold her accountable for not letting the money and its source cloud her judgment in governing the Western Cape or being the opposition.

The bank that just wants to help
Last week I wrote about FNB's own double standards when it comes to their campaign aimed at, among other things, making South Africa a better place. Yet it has failed to clear out its own closet when it comes to its part in the problematic network of corrupt power relationships that is at the very heart of the rot in this country. The company's "You can Help campaign", which it was bullied into taking down by the ANC, featured a criticism of President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla residence being built with state funds.

I called on the bank to deal with its own part in the fiasco by granting Zuma a loan for the property that he could neither afford nor deserve.

  • How the bank responded: FNB has ignored its role in Nkandla and has instead kowtowed to government and removed the series of online videos.
  • How it should have responded: Forget the videos and whether they were taken down or not. Let's talk about real action. It may be madness, but imagine a world where our financial institutions were dedicated to a corruption-free society, and refused to be part of the systems that allow financial malfeasance to happen. Instead of talking big about changing South Africa for the better, as FNB is doing, I'd like to see it start with itself, and honestly admit its past mistakes and commit to a cleaner future.

Nkandla continua
Speaking of the blot on our current political landscape, government has finally responded to the furore around Zuma's Nkandla residence, on which government is spending more than R200-million of public money. On Sunday Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi said that a ministerial investigation cleared Zuma, whom he insisted was not aware of any details regarding the upgrades.

Yet the M&G has published a letter proving the opposite.

The letter, containing a detailed progress report for presentation to Zuma, was sent on November 5 2010 by the department's minister at the time, Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde. It stipulated the work done on the security installations at Zuma's private residence.

  • How he responded: Denial, sheer and outright. We published the story three months ago. Nxesi, in his disingenuous and plainly false briefing, merely pretended the story wasn't published.
  • How he should have responded: By not lying, for a start.

So why the absolute anathema to admitting we're wrong these days, particularly in local politics? Humility is out of fashion and aggressive "I'm right-ism" is all the rage. But here's the thing with lying, double-standards and refusing to acknowledge one's mistakes: it takes increasing amounts of energy until it's more trouble than it's worth.

To err is human, as the maxim goes. As sure as death and taxes is the fact that everyone will make mistakes. Yet with each pride-defying admission comes the grace that is just as sure as our imperfections; the second chances, and the softening of the attitudes and hearts of others when one is willing to 'fess up and make right.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. You can read her column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.


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