It was a short sentence that had nothing much to do with the content of the story. It was just sort of, there. But it’s there-ness was like a cold beer on a hot summer’s day and as I read it a small drop of hope landed in my heart.

The article was about a severe traffic snarl up in the Durban CBD caused by a scheduled blackout. Chaos reigned; points-men were in short supply and cars backed up for blocks. Then came the sentence – a quote from an eThekwini Metro Police spokesperson: “We apologise. We knew in advance that the power would go off.”

We happened to be caught in that traffic and my wife and I had a couple of things to say about both Eskom and the Metro Police. But when I read those 12 words my attitude towards the Metro Police softened. This is the power of an apology.

On a personal level I experienced this power in a meeting with an estranged friend and colleague. About a year ago we had had an altercation which had left our relationship in tatters but we recently made contact and decided to meet. It was a little awkward at first but then we began to talk and catch up and we both said our apologies in our own ways. We have begun a journey towards a renewed friendship and the world is a better place for it.

All this got me thinking about Christmas. Now let me be clear upfront; the message of Christmas is there for all so please don’t think that what I am about to say is just a Christian thing; it is a humanity thing.

On one level Christmas is about giving; it is a time for us to spoil and be spoilt. On another level Christmas has become known as a time of peace; an opportunity to press pause on our crazy lives and take a breath in preparation for a new year.

But perhaps an aspect of Christmas that has been lost in all the noise is that – at its core – Christmas is about forgiveness. This is simply because the man whose birth this day marks – Jesus Christ – personified forgiveness in a way that no historical figure before or since has done. He spoke of a new way of relating to one another and indeed to God regardless of what we may or may not have done. This remains as powerful now as it was 2000 odd years ago simply because forgiveness brings healing.

This orientation towards forgiveness shows up in people in a number of ways most notably the humility to ask for forgiveness. Contrary to what we may think this humility is a sign of ultimate strength; a leader – indeed any human being – is never more powerful than when he or she is admitting their mistakes, asking for forgiveness and – very importantly – explaining how they will fix what they have done. Take the recent case of Pallo Jordan apologising and then resigning from parliament for lying about having a doctorate. As a result of these actions the issue simply died. Yes he will have lost a great deal as a result of his lies but he will have regained his soul through one simple act of humility and contrition.

The obvious implication of the sincere apology is that we are admitting that we were wrong and that we need to fix things. But the danger in not apologising is that we prevent this healing power of forgiveness from taking effect. Nkandla is a great example of this; without an admission of guilt, a sincere apology and a commitment to repay the money from the President the issue will never go away and the damage to him personally and politically will become incrementally worse with every day that passes. Having decided on his current path of inaction he must understand that the unapologetic leader will remain on the side of their power and that that power will dwindle and ultimately die.

On the flipside of this the power inherent in seeking forgiveness is immeasurable; parents asking children to forgive them and vice versa; mines or oil companies sincerely apologising for an environmental disaster; banks saying sorry when clients are defrauded of money. The sincere, personal apology; not one sent through the post, printed on a sign at the door or worse still, expressed by a spokesperson, has the power to change hearts and minds when accompanied by remedial actions.

Finally, I do not wish to imply that any of this is straightforward; human relationships are complex and often fraught with pain. But what I do know is this; if we can just take one small step towards apology and forgiveness this Christmas then we will be slightly closer to experiencing the peace, joy and goodwill that the season promises.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.