Apr 6, 2016

Is it too late for Zuma to say sorry?

At the end of last week and in the wake of a damning Constitutional Court judgement, Jacob Zuma went on air and issued what many feel to be the most equivocal of apologies.  Perhaps predictably, the ANC Youth league in KZN was quick to forgive, while the leader of the opposition Mmusi Maimane felt the apology was an insult and went on to propose a motion to remove the president from office and garner significant negative media coverage for No.1.  But beyond partisan politics, was his Friday speech a good idea or not?

Within Behavioural Economics there has been some work done on examining the effect of apologies and the results are informative. Two papers in particular are informative we think.

In a 2010 paper researchers Johannes Abeler, Juljana Calaki, Kai Andree and Christoph Basek report on an experiment they ran with a company selling goods on E-bay’s German site. Customers are able to rate the transaction as good, neutral or bad. At the time customers and companies could agree to withdraw a rating and have the transaction not rated.

From time to time the company did not perform as well by its customers as it wished and customers would rate the transaction neutral or bad. Over the period during which the experiment was run roughly 10 000 transactions were conducted, with 632 eliciting neutral or negative ratings.

With the permission of the company, the researchers randomly allocated the non-positive reviewers to receive one of three email responses from the company, each of which asked reviewers to remove their rating. A third of the reviewers were offered a low euro amount (2.5 Euro) in return for  withdrawing  their non-positive rating. A further third were offered a higher money amount (5 Euro). The final third of reviewers were offered no monetary inducements but were instead offered an apology.

Most of us would assume that while an apology would go some distance towards smoothing things over with customers, it surely could not compare to the effect of offering cold hard cash. After all, surely the money is a more material and believable demonstration of the company’s remorse than just talk which is, after all, cheap.

And money did have an effect: 19.3% of customers offered 2.5 Euro and 22.9% of those offered 5 Euro removed their rating. But that was pocket change compared to the 44.8% of customers who withdrew their rating after being offered nothing more than an apology, over email, by a company that had already not delivered on their promises.

This research suggests that Jacob Zuma’s apology should have done the trick and it might have, were it not for a few more complications.

In a 2013 paper, Urs Fischbacher and Verena Utikal report on an experiment where subjects can intentionally or unintentionally reduce a payout to a second subject they are paired with. If their action resulted in a reduced payout, they have the option to apologise to the second subject and that subject then has the option of taking away some of the first subject’s payout by way of punishment. In nearly all situations where the second players payout was reduced, apologising rather than not apologising reduced punishment. However, there was one noticeable exception. Where the first player reduced the second player’s payout intentionally, issuing an apology resulted in more severe punishment than if no apology was issued. In that case, where intentions were clear, apologies seem to have been seen as a cynical ploy to get away with bad behaviour.

Taken together these results suggest what the effect of Friday’s apology is likely to have been as well as the course of action Zuma should have followed.

First, Jacob Zuma should have apologised the moment the Nkandla scandal broke in 2009. Research shows that apologies at that time are incredibly effective, even if there is reason to believe that they might be insincere. He may even have escaped without needing to pay back most of the money.

However, by fighting on, he occasioned first the Public Protector’s report and then the Constitutional Court judgement. Both of these worked to remove reasonable doubt among more and more people about whether Zuma intentionally acted unconstitutionally. Research shows that an apology to someone – who knows you intended to harm them – is not taken as an apology, and their response will be to punish you even more severely. By apologising so late in the game our president has landed himself in water that is now much hotter than it needed to be. And for that, we’re sure he’s sorry.

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Abeler, Johannes, Juljana Calaki, Kai Andree, and Christoph Basek. “The power of apology.” Economics Letters 107, no. 2 (2010): 233-235.

Fischbacher, Urs, and Verena Utikal. “On the acceptance of apologies.”Games and Economic Behavior 82 (2013): 592-608.