ON THURSDAY last week something remarkable happened in the world of politics. Explaining the recent decision by the Democratic Alliance (DA) to support the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, DA leader Helen Zille issued an admission that the party had got it wrong.

It was a straightforward explanation and, with it, the acceptance of personal responsibility. But, if we know anything about political apologies, they are rarely what they appear.

Before looking at the nature of the apology in further detail, it is worth saying something about its significance. Too often such things are glossed over. Admitting error in the South African environment is to invite both your opposition and the media, both prone to moral outrage, to vilify you further. Likewise, getting something wrong and publicly saying so means you risk losing capital in a competitive political market, whatever the justification. But in the best sense of the idea an apology is an authentic commitment to progress and betterment and that should not be forgotten.

The general South African context is not a liberal one. At the one end of the spectrum there exists a rabid, populist socialism. In the middle, a prevalent racial African nationalism, augmented by a cultural impulse toward communal values and ideas. In between those are agnostic liberals — largely in the fourth estate — who, unable to decide if they are individuals or a group archetype and confused by their distaste for the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) iron-fisted misconduct in government, feign a liberal outlook while lusting after nationalism’s baser instincts in private, which they couch in ill-defined terms like "social justice" and "liberal egalitarianism".

It is a hostile environment for any liberal agenda. The fanatical ideologues wish the DA obliterated, the nationalists it humiliated, if not subservient, and the agnostics that it be reshaped after their own muddled identity, that they might have the best of both worlds, as all agnostics do. To introduce into that environment an admission of error is brave indeed. Credit to Zille for that.

That said, one can now turn attention to the veracity of that admission.

Zille effectively pleaded incompetence. She wrote: "We dropped the ball…. Our representatives on the portfolio committee were inadequately prepared. The many and varied submissions on the bill were rushed through the portfolio committee in four meetings. The long parliamentary recess intervened before the bill went to the National Assembly and so we were unable to debate the implications of the bill adequately in caucus; when it did come before caucus, on the day it was due to be debated and voted on in the house, the explanatory memorandum produced by our spokespeople was defective. To make matters worse, we had five minutes (literally) to consider seven different bills."

The argument was that the party’s systems failed. No doubt they did. But "systems" are merely the mechanics of human behaviour. At their end are individuals, personally responsible for the decisions that comprise any procedure.

Zille says the bill was "rushed through" four committee meetings. Actually, there were five. They were:

• Departmental Briefing on Bill: 6 August 2013

• Public Hearings on Bill: 7 August 2013

• Public Hearings on Bill: 8 August 2013

• Deliberations on Bill 1: 11 September 2013

• Deliberations on Bill 2: 17 September 2013

From the departmental briefing through the final deliberation, that is a period of 40 days. The actual committees might have been rushed (although the DA made no such complaint at the time) but the period over which they were held was no such thing. Further, every committee meeting, within days, was fully documented online by the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) including all submissions made to the committee — submissions which, significantly, excluded one from the DA. Any one of the DA’s 80-strong caucus, including the leader herself, could have logged on and read them at any time, but none seemed to bother. If they did, none of them saw anything wrong.

Crucially, not mentioned by Zille, the proposals regarding the bill were first tabled on October 19, 2012 and, prior to that, the draft bill went through the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). Afrikaans trade union Solidarity warned what was coming as far back as July, 2012. The Bill has been in the public domain, in one form or another, for over a year. That makes a farce of Zille’s suggestion the failure was time and pressure.

"We had five minutes (literally) to consider seven different bills", says Zille. No, that is deeply disingenuous. This had nothing to do with pressure and everything to do with interpretation, knowledge, time and effort. A better formulation would be: "We (literally) have a five-minute attention span." It would be interesting to look at DA MPs Twitter time lines for October 24, the day of that caucus and the parliamentary vote.

Zille acknowledges some of this in saying the party’s two representatives on the labour committee were "inadequately prepared" and their explanatory memorandum to the national caucus, on which basis it would have adopted a position, was "defective".

However, if you read the PMG minutes, the two public representatives were not "inadequately prepared" — they made numerous contributions — just they had the wrong position.

At one point, DA representative on the committee Sej Motau not only agreed that the department of labour should have increased powers to enforce the intent of the original legislation but, according to the PMG minutes, said that: "Everyone agreed (noncompliant businesses) needed to be fined and a significant amount but the question was how best to do this."

His one concern was that "business would always find a loophole even when they could afford to pay the fine". (The bill effectively strengthens the original act by bolstering penalties and increasing the enforcement powers of the department of labour.

Indeed, in his speech to parliament, when the final bill was tabled for adoption before the National Assembly, he said: "The DA fully supports the constitutional provisions for affirmative action and the objectives of the Employment Equity Act to promote redress and diversity in the South African labour market".

He was clearly oblivious to the speech made by Tony Leon in Parliament in 1998, at the adoption of the original legislation, in which he described it as a "pernicious piece of social engineering" — as was every other member of the caucus who watched on without so much as a murmur.

So to say they were "inadequately prepared" is to evoke a set of weasel words.

So far as the DA’s principles went on this matter, they were fundamentally wrong but they had put some considerable thought into their position, of that you can be sure. On October 15, ahead of the vote in the National Assembly, Solidarity appealed to MPs not to support the Bill. No one in the DA took any notice. Business Day quoted Motau on Friday as saying, in response to Zille retraction: "All I will say is that I stand by the vote."

There can be no doubt this was not a matter of poor preparation at all, and Zille is being devious in saying so, it was a matter of profound ideological disagreement — a set of DA MPs ignorant of the DA’s core philosophical principles and dismissive of the party’s historical position; and a caucus too uninterested to interrogate the problem at hand. It will be interesting to see where both those MPs appear when the DA draws up its final lists for the 2014 election.

There are four other points worth making. The first is what prompted Zille to make such a frank apology.

A key concern would have been how the debacle was playing itself out in the Afrikaans press. Largely and ironically ignored by the English media, it was covered prominently in Rapport and later made the front page of Beeld, where Tony Leon suggested the DA was becoming more and more like the ANC.

The DA might well be on a very concerted drive to win over potential black voters, but it knows it can never do so at the expense of its traditional supporters. And, with the likes of powerful Afrikaans organisations such as Solidarity outraged at the DA’s flip-flop, it had to correct the record. In turn, donors who owned businesses affected by the bill and who had read Leon’s column in Business Day, would not have been pleased.

Certainly that is a more powerful case than it being out of any concern for its actual liberal principles or values. Its year-long failure to engage properly with the bill renders that argument null and void. Likewise, having invested so much political capital in being seen as pro-black economic empowerment (BEE) is the last thing it wanted was for this to be undercut by a headline reading: "DA opposes employment equity". In truth, this was an entirely pragmatic move on Zille’s part — an attempt to plaster over a wound that was quickly becoming septic, but of the infection there was no remedy offered. It is tempting to believe this a response to a concern for liberalism. Don’t be fooled. It was a calm, entirely strategic intervention. Had the media not picked up on it, you can be fairly sure nothing but silence would have followed.

Second, that it was pragmatic not principled is further evidenced by the absolute and comprehensive failure of the broader party membership to say a single public word about such a fundamental about-turn on one of its key principles.

There is a culture of silence and fear that has come to grip the party in recent years. Not a single one of its 1,300-odd public representatives across the country had the courage to speak up or take issue with the decision to vote for the bill.

Former president Thabo Mbeki would have been proud, but for a liberal party — ostensibly the champion of a marketplace of ideas — it is shameful. When principles themselves are sacrificed in the name of authoritarian compliance, that party is in serious trouble indeed.

Then again, perhaps they too, like the national caucus, were none the wiser or just not interested.

The criticism started with an article by James Myburgh on October 27. For 12 days the entire party membership held its tongue, perfectly happy for its position and its principles to be dragged through the mud.

Where was the pride? The passion for its ideals? They were hidden under a rock of ignorance and timidity. True, some may have raised internal concern — although you can be sure at most only a tiny minority — but publicly they simply capitulated.

As Zille’s apology proved, one can publicly contradict a party position but, it appears, only on her terms; as if the party’s principles belong solely to her. For the rest the message seems to be: keep your thoughts to yourself, and every member happily suspended their principles in turn like obedient drones. Public criticism of the DA’s principles, an invaluable part of a democracy, is now outsourced almost entirely to civil society. The party itself will do whatever it is told.

To be clear, this does not necessarily mean that the party tears itself apart in a series of messy public spats but that, on matters of principle, in a reasonable way designed to foster the betterment of the institution and guide its practice, its members speak up in a proactive way to promote and protect its values. Alas, that would seem a bridge too far, a requirement too onerous or a necessity too tainted by internal hostility for most to contemplate. The brutal truth is: DA members fear the internal consequences of publicly speaking up on any disagreement. In a democracy, as in a political party, that is a sign of weakness not strength.

Third, when DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko was elected, Zille stated in her own terms her role in the caucus: "I am a full member of the parliamentary caucus and I would be abdicating my responsibilities if I did not give leadership and if I did not have a close relationship with the leadership of caucus. I will continue with the close working relationship with the leader of our parliamentary caucus because that is what I have to do; I am the leader of the DA, I've been elected to give this party direction."

Her decision to jointly manage the Western Cape government as Premier and the party as its leader has long been criticised. One must not excuse the parliamentary caucus and its leadership from their responsibility but quite clearly Zille cannot do both jobs adequately. Whatever the caucus failings, if she wants the best of both worlds, and is responsible for "direction", she personally failed to give her party duties adequate attention on this matter. She might have accepted responsibility but one doubts she will admit to this being the cause.

Finally, taken in its entirety, together with Mazibuko’s statements on the matter and Zille’s complaints about employment equity as premier, the apology appears to be a formal concession that, if the DA is to make any progress in capturing the hearts and minds of black South Africans, it must be done on the ANC’s terms, within its paradigm and using its language. There might be differences but they are defined on the ANC’s terms. Increasingly the DA’s offer seems to be that it is the ANC, only without corruption, maladministration and Jacob Zuma.

It supports BEE, praises Mbeki, welcomes bigots and traditional leaders enmeshed in illiberal cultural practices, positions itself as the ANC of old, equivocates on employment equity, even makes special place for the former ANC premier of the Eastern Cape jointly responsible for overseeing the collapse of a province and whom Zille herself has suggested was complicit in covering up corruption (and, no doubt, who will be elected to parliament in 2014). And, when it is not doing those things, it talks of ubuntu and how to make transformation work better. "We are the real ANC," they seem to be saying, "only we run a better ship."

Who decides these things? Does everyone agree? Of course they do. The drone army marches on. Gone is the open opportunity society for all. With a national election looming, when was the last time you heard a speech about that?

Internally, the idea of the DA has often been at odds with the real ideological influence of its increasingly diverse membership, which comprises a range of world views from nationalists through Christian conservatives. Yet, always, the centre has held. A small group of people guarded its principles and values jealously and, more often than not, acted as a bulwark against any fundamental encroachment on the DA’s core political philosophy. As its borders become more porous and as it desperately seeks to better fit into that hostile environment it has allowed into its ranks a series of people not fundamentally liberal. At the same time, the centre has become increasingly open to being flexible about its principles.

A key loss on that front is party strategist Ryan Coetzee. He was, in many respects, the centre that held. And he understood well that the party must broaden its appeal but never at the expense of its liberal values. This would not have happened on his watch.

The waters are getting muddier and muddier. The party, much like the sycophantic silence that met the decision to support the amendment bill will have none of this criticism. It too has increasingly sacrificed the ability to introspect or speak up about what concerns it might have. It has learnt always to be subservient to the centre and the result is a kind of uniform, obtuse denial, in which criticism is either dismissed out of hand (usually by attacking character not argument) or simply ignored — and much self-righteous delight taken out of the relative unity unthinking obsequiousness engenders. Well, the centre is not as focused on principle as it used to be. Look at the facts.

The DA can pretend this latest incident was a consequence of a "systems failure" if it likes. After all, ignorance is bliss. The truth is, it was the consequence of ideological confusion, prevalent disinterest and timid deference to power. In turn, her apology rings hollow.

A core tenant of liberal thought is personal responsibility, as any DA speech will be the first to tell you. How ironic, then, that when it comes to the party’s own philosophical maintenance, so many in its ranks seem to have relinquished their own.