A MATTER OF DEGREE
Credentials, power and authority: Why officials are tempted to make false qualification claims
Regular squabbles about whether a politician has degrees and diplomas (and whether they should confess to muddying the waters about their education) mean there must be a better way. Let’s do some thinking about this one.
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has suffered a series of recent public embarrassments as a clutch of its senior figures, including its national leader, John Steenhuisen, a party provincial head or two and yet other members of Parliament such as Natasha Mazzone, have had their claimed academic credentials — or the lack of them — called into public question about whether they are well-enough educated for national leadership.
While these occurrences have made headlines, bruised egos, rubbished reputations in many eyes, and even forced a sullen withdrawal from public office for several individuals, they have not been the only times outings over false or absent credentials have occurred in South Africa. Political figures from the governing party and others have also been forced to carry out painful public retreats from claims in their CVs — or to issue a painful admission if they have allowed such claims to be widely circulated on their behalf.
What is it about the relationship between credentials, power and authority that tempts leaders to make claims that can easily be shown to be untrue? Is some kind of imposter syndrome at work here — the worry that others will find out the embarrassing truth? Or is it just an effort to slide through life without doing the heavy lifting such claims require in order for them to be substantiated?
Or does it arise from a realpolitik understanding that this country’s society is so shot through with a need to have those glittering credentials — and thus the magic abbreviations before and after their names — that almost any effort to obtain them is worth the effort? (There is, of course, a fascinating contra-pattern that is the hallmark of a populist. A few SA politicians, like a certain former president, have revelled in the public’s recognition that they are men of the people precisely because they have so little formal education, but have great insights into human nature.)
However, historically at least, that approach has been rare in South Africa. (Even proponents of Radical Economic Transformation have been taking time off to study for advanced degrees.) Accordingly, a further question arises: does this urge for credentialism actually produce better political leadership? Or, are personal attributes and characteristics, or real experience in the world outside of politics at least as important?
In recent months, in a fascinating, ironic turn of events, when those senior DA figures were forced to undertake their self-justifying gymnastics after their lack of university degrees or unfinished professional certifications were discussed, such revelations required that they and their party explain sheepishly that it was experience and street smarts — and not diplomas — that were the real keys to competence and success and those values were more important than those titles before or after their names.
Some of this motivation may well be a remnant holdover from the social and political circumstances of the apartheid era. Given the ruthlessly hierarchical structure of most of South Africa’s formal organisations for nearly everyone — and still more so for most black South Africans — the main path to advancement was a combination of intense institutional and ideological loyalty, plus those precious certificates and titles from continuing course work. Pretty much everything would depend upon it. “Education was everything” for such people, as Professor Wahbie Long explained in a recent Daily Maverick article.
One of the world’s earliest distance learning institutions, Unisa, was initially designed to provide continuing education for government civil servants, teachers and police, to give them the diplomas and certificates needed for professional advancement. Without these diplomas and certificates there was the possibility of stagnating on the steps of the upward ladder or even sliding downward and losing that government job (including being a teacher), along with other benefits, such as officially allowed housing, that might accrue.
And of course for Africans, there was also the additional need to have the right stamps in their internal passbook, largely based on workplace circumstances that supported the necessary official authorisations. Without those, the possibility of an endorsement “back” to an impoverished homeland always hung over one’s head, even if an individual had never lived in Lebowa, Transkei, Ciskei, or any of the others.
Now consider the routine use of titles like “Dr” with politically potent individuals such as HF Verwoerd or Andries Treurnicht, even in ordinary conversation, to underscore their authority via the symbolic quality of their supposed erudition — and thus their superior thinking — that resided in the use of that title.
(As an aside, one of my late relatives, an internationally renowned scientist, used to complain about a growing tendency for anybody with a PhD or a JD after their name to insist on being addressed as “Doctor”. He used to argue such a sobriquet should be reserved for actual medical doctors, rather than bestowed indiscriminately on preachers, economists, sociologists, or architects. For them it should be sufficient to be identified simply as John Jones PhD, if it really mattered.)
In a parallel holdover from more regimented Dutch colonial times in Indonesia (and a particularly hierarchical colonial regime there when it was the Dutch East Indies), people still routinely insist on being addressed as “Ir” or ingenieur — a degreed engineer — or “Drs”, doctorandus, — roughly equivalent to an honours degree in South Africa. And, of course, professor and similar titles are formal government designations. All such honorifics would inevitably be engraved on one’s desk and door name-plates, printed on one’s business cards and added wherever their names appeared in print.
Perhaps the South African impulse for those titles is an echo of an earlier Dutch colonial tendency, or even from a British influence as well. Regardless of lineage, however, it still remains a supreme goal for many South Africans to be able to claim such titles. The holding of those precious abbreviations then pushes some to claim them without having done the academic work in order to meet a position’s formal skills requirements in order to show their personal value and thus make themselves more impressive in the eyes of their interlocutors.
We can, for example, recall the circumstances a few years ago when a senior managerial figure in the Transnet universe falsely claimed postgraduate engineering qualifications to gain a senior position. The deception was eventually uncovered, but only after major damage had been done.
This, in turn, leads to consideration of imposter syndrome. That is when someone doubts they are intrinsically valuable, trustworthy and of leadership calibre in comparison to others around them, and they worry they will be unmasked as a fraud. As a result, the protective armour of those abbreviations and citations becomes a defence mechanism.
Consider the case of SA’s ambassador to Japan, Mohau Pheko, whose doctorate turned out to be a valueless US diploma mill parchment. In a less than convincing defence, she claimed she had only learnt after the fact the school was an unaccredited institution — that is, a place where, for a fee, a person could essentially receive almost any degree they wanted. Such fraudulent organisations prey on the gullibility of people, but they require a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties to believe the pretty brochures.
Ultimately Pheko capitulated, but not before pushing the blame on to the institution for deceiving her. In a response to her squirming that should haunt the DA given its own embarrassments, as The Sowetan noted at the time, the “ ‘DA calls for the immediate recalling and suspension of South African Ambassador to Japan, Ms Mohau Pheko, pending an inquiry for misrepresenting her qualifications,’ MP Sandy Kalyan said.
“The party claimed President Jacob Zuma was made aware of Pheko’s fraudulent degree in 2010, when she was appointed ambassador to Canada. ‘Nothing less than a full parliamentary inquiry into this international blunder is needed to consider not only Ms Pheko’s conduct, but that of the presidency and dirco [department of international relations and cooperation] as well, given that government has turned a blind eye to this issue for several years.’ ”
Perhaps, too, the more awkward circumstances of former minister of arts and culture Pallo Jordan come to mind. There should be no questions about the quality of his intellect, based on his voluminous public writings and presentations. And many people in the arts and cultural world say he was clearly the best minister for that sector South Africa has had since the establishment of non-racial democracy. Eventually, though, the “Dr” in front of his name had been added almost unconsciously and never corrected.
Ultimately, a less flattering reality emerged. As a result, Jordan withdrew from public life for a period of self-reflection and contemplation. The excuse that he had been carrying out his studies in the US amid the general chaos of the late 1960s and early 1970s on many university campuses — and he just never quite got to finishing his doctorate — certainly seems plausible. But he never was quite able to correct the public record, given his status as a public intellectual and the by-then common use of the title.
Given the assumption by many South Africans that a serious and significant public intellectual and political figure such as he was must surely bear a PhD, meant the misstatement ran on and on — until it didn’t. Perhaps there was also just a slight inflection towards the imposter syndrome in operation as well. It was a sad moment, regardless.
Whenever one entered a black home, with the understanding that “education is everything”, all those earned diplomas, certificates and similar documents were always displayed in a place of honour on the wall of the lounge or front room of the house for everyone to see. They were there as a physical manifestation of the pride in being able to say, “There, we’ve done it”, or “Look what our child has done!” Yes, of course, in every society people take pride in their accomplishments (and the bending of the truth is now nurturing a growing business globally in verifying claimed credentials in job applications). But South Africa’s racial landscape made this effort for official credentialism virtually mandatory, as long as financial circumstances allowed for it.
But does this dispiriting business over CVs mean this is really the only way to judge leadership potential, in addition to measuring political loyalty? Are there other ways to judge politicians’ qualities than from a competition over CVs, amid an epidemic of flawed or fraudulent ones? There is the famous adage by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes about the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt as he came into office in the middle of the Great Depression that this new chief executive may have had a second-class intellect, but he also had a first-class temperament.
Holmes’ argument was that people skills and the ability to cope with complex human management issues were much more important than brains, per se, let alone a litany of degrees and certificates. Roosevelt had attended Harvard University just like a good scion of the US “Brahmin” class should have, but he never actually finished a law degree — and never tried to convince anybody he had done so. Despite the growing share of senior US political figures who have done their education (yes, often in law) at some of the priciest, most selective universities in the country, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia, there are still many who have not.
The current US president and vice-president attended Syracuse University and the U of Delaware and Howard University and the U of California’s Hastings School of Law respectively. All four of these are fine schools, but they are not what most people think of as the apex predators of the US tertiary educational system. And, of course, in years gone by, presidents Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman had no university education at all — and Lincoln was a near-autodidact, living on the then frontier of settlement.
What they both did have were intense, clear-eyed visions about their tasks, and an innate understanding of the other great requisite of being a president, what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt called, “the power to persuade”, rather than the hope that simply by ordering something it would be done.
In fact, a careful look at successful politicians globally reveals individuals who were not simply professional politicians from early adulthood onward in youth formations and junior positions. They worked at other jobs and professions (from medicine to teaching, to business, to union organising, to farming) and brought those experiences to bear on the political lives they eventually chose for themselves.
To take one obvious example, the globally respected, uber-effective, now-retiring German chancellor, Angela Merkel, did not train in law, political science or economics, but in chemistry. She only gradually came to politics as an experienced adult in a reunified Germany after the end of the Cold War.
A little closer to home, arguably the man who has been South Africa’s most successful finance minister in recent memory, Trevor Manuel, was not schooled formally in business, finance, or economics, but, rather, in building technology and quantity surveying. But he understood how to learn, and how to develop a cadre of trusted subordinates who could be relied upon for guidance, information and expert advice. (He did, of course, gain his political skills from his time in the UDF in the 1980s.)
Such observations lead us to our final point. A nation’s political system demands the broadest possible range of experiences to help it cope with the demands of a complex, but troubled planet. A wall full of certificates is no substitute for real insight, people skills, and experience.
One way, perhaps, to reduce the pressure on South Africans to have those precious certificates (real or feigned), is to encourage political parties to recruit new entrants to their structures much more widely, and to leaven the ranks of new candidates with people who have already made their mark beyond the political world. New energy and new ideas become part of the debate and deliberations about what is needed for the present and the future, and there is less attention on who has which piece of fancy parchment with the gold decorations around the edges. One can hope. DM