Sorry isn't good enough anymore Mr Shivambu

South Africans are mostly forgiving. Sometimes, in pursuit of ubuntu, it almost seems as if we want transgressors to apologise so we can forgive them.

When former police minister Adriaan Vlok apologised despite overseeing the apartheid police, we applauded him as if that was enough to erase the years of oppression he oversaw.

We almost willed former president PW Botha to apologise in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that we could forgive him and move on. We even forgave former prsident FW de Klerk for his role in apartheid. Some of us argued that he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize because he had moved our country to democracy.

More recently, we have seen several high-profile instances where politicians have apologised for transgressions and moved on.

Some of us were almost hoping former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, Premier David Makhura or Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi - anybody - would apologise for the deaths of 144 people in the Life Esidimeni tragedy, so we could forgive them. As much as we sympathise with the victims, we are always keen to forgive transgressors.

We have forgiven so many people for their blatant racism, which sometimes they blamed on lapses of judgment, or fatigue or both.

We have become so accustomed to accepting apologies and then allowing the transgressors to continue with their lives.

But sometimes an apology is not enough.

No amount of apologising can make up for apartheid; the millions confined to Bantustan homelands.

Yet black people, who form the majority in our country, have been patiently trying to find ways of forgiving. Maybe it has something to do with the crimes committed during apartheid being so huge that it is easier to forgive than to prosecute. The latter would probably take centuries.

Yet, even if there has been an apology, it does not mean that we should forget.

It is probably within the context of the easy apology that EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu thought it appropriate to apologise in the least contrite of statements after he attacked a journalist.

Throughout the statement, Shivambu refers to his attack on the journalist as a “scuffle”, trying to underplay what had happened. But what happened is that a leader of a significant political party in our country chose to use violence against a member of the media, ostensibly because he did not like the race of the journalist.

Shivambu ended the statement: “The EFF, which I represent in Parliament and am deputy president of, upholds media freedom, and freedom of association. As a loyal member of the EFF, I fully uphold media freedom and freedom of association and the scuffle was not meant to suppress these constitutional principles.

“I will not do media interviews concerning the incident because I believe there are important other issues to speak about in the public discourse than a scuffle. ”

Of course, instead of censuring their deputy president, the EFF praised him for his apology. This is not unusual because the EFF president, Julius Malema, has probably transgressed in much bigger ways.

And just like that, Shivambu thinks it is possible to move along without any repercussions, because that is how we do things in South Africa.

Maybe he is right that an assault on a journalist is a small thing and we have much bigger things to worry about, such as poverty, inequality, joblessness and, of course, land restitution.

But politicians need to set an example to the public otherwise, very soon, we could see more journalists assaulted because people do not like their race or the publication they represent.

The political climate leading up to the national elections next year will become intense and many people will say things for which they will later be forced to apologise.

But apologies mean nothing if they do not have consequences. Shivambu has presented the EFF, Parliament and the courts with a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that politicians will not be allowed to get away with it.

Political conduct is not only determined by how politicians react to big issues like Life Esidimeni. It is also determined by how they conduct themselves daily, including interaction with the media.

If we do not now deal with Shivambu and Malema for that matter, we will not be able to deal with the vitriol that will no doubt spew closer to the elections.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 24 March 2018)