Judith February: Degrees of dishonesty

In April this year, Oxford University played host to a seminar reflecting on '20 years of South African democracy'. On the first evening the keynote address was delivered by then deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe. Motlanthe graciously sat through the sessions that day gaining as much context as he could.

In the evening he was interviewed by a small panel and then proceeded to deliver his address. The audience was rapt as Motlanthe held our collective attention in this rather genteel setting far away from the ugly cut and thrust of politics. Motlanthe's CV does not reflect that he went to university, held any degrees or even a PhD. He has never claimed these formal degrees and no questions were ever asked of him in that regard.

What we do know and what the attentive audience at Oxford knew was that this was someone who had the dignity of his office and that without a doubt, he was what we have come to know as an 'organic intellectual', obviously widely read and knowledgeable.

Of his years on Robben Island, Motlanthe has written, "We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything. The years out there were the most productive years in one's life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life."

That evening in Oxford and those words came to mind this past week when the Sunday Times published the now infamous text message exchange between ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan and journalist Gareth Van Onselen about the former's academic qualifications. There is no need to go over it again now but the gist of it was that it appears Jordan has neither a degree from the LSE or a PhD from Wisconsin-Madison as he has claimed repeatedly over the years and when he held public office.

Many arguments have been offered in Jordan's defence. Broadly they run as follows; one does not need to have a PhD to be regarded as an intellectual; secondly, 'struggle' history makes people do strange things and that ought to be worthy of our empathy; and then lastly, that the media itself is selective about which issues it highlights and this is reflective of the broader political economy of newsrooms.

The arguments seem to hold little water though because the text exchange between van Onselen and Jordan is quite extraordinary. It is extraordinary because it reveals so much about Jordan. On the one hand, it conveys a near naiveté thinking he might be able to fob off a journalist, and then he proceeds to move between threatening to sue van Onselen and then curiously offering him exclusive rights to his autobiography. Now some might view that as an attempt at a bribe.

In any event, the exchange is extraordinary for its amateurish ducking and diving. Jordan has said nothing further to dispel what seems clear from the text exchange, namely that he holds none of the degrees he claims to hold.

So, what to make of the arguments in Jordan's defence, assuming the allegations are true? We do not require of our elected representatives that they have a minimum standard of education, nor do we require them to have PhDs. The Motlanthe example above is a case in point and there are others. What we do require is that they not lie about it.

Jordan has on several occasions taken swipes at members of his party who display less integrity than they should. If these allegations are true, then it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black. To justify the lie one would need to take the argument to its logical conclusion and that is that because one was in the 'struggle' and because of the conditions of exile, it is justified to lie about one's CV.

The same argument might then apply to the SABC's Hlaudi Motsoeneng who was found to have lied about whether he had a matric certificate. We set the bar so low that a matric certificate is what it takes for Motsoeneng to walk through the door to head up the SABC. But be that as it may, Jordan's case seems no different. Motsoeneng might equally claim that he was a victim of the apartheid years and so presumably faking his CV is fair game? Surely that argument is disingenuous? There are many who remained in exile with possibly lesser support than Jordan had (with two academic parents) who completed their degrees and went on to become leading academics in their field.

The public harm is therefore in the lie which has allegedly been perpetuated here. Many have argued that Jordan's intellectual ability is such that it is irrelevant whether he has a PhD or not. It is a known fact that a PhD does not an intellectual make, yet the argument is flawed because again, it seeks to justify a lie. Baleka Mbete might have been a brilliant driver but did that give her the right to fake her driver's license? The same argument would extend to Jordan. No-one disputes his intellectual prowess. Yet, the seeming lie is what is at the heart of the problem here.

Yes, the media may be selective about the cases it covers but that argument does not adequately deal with the merits of this matter. We should probably do a fact check on all politicians and academics and those claiming to have degrees, but practically that is impossible.

Recently, there were allegations about Thandi Modise's CV and deficiencies in it. Of course, that similar allegations have now been made against Jordan sits uncomfortably for those who are supportive of a progressive project and also for those who find van Onselen's brand of journalism offensive and distasteful.

But all of that is irrelevant. If Jordan has lied specifically when he was a public representative, then the public deserves to know and to draw its own conclusions about the lie.

That we hoped it would not be so and that we admire his intellect and his prowess, is neither here nor there. He seems to have been found wanting. Part of building an ethical society is that we accept it when those we admire have failed in some way and we don't try to sugar-coat it in relativism related to the past.

Judith February is a senior associate at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).