South Africa


Politicians’ qualification scandals within a forever wounded education system – it’s complex and complicated

Politicians’ qualification scandals within a forever wounded education system – it’s complex and complicated
Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile) | Johannesburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sydney Seshibedi)

There is evidence that the lack of educational qualifications for the majority of our councillors is having an impact on governance. Despite calls for office bearers to meet certain educational requirements, it is unlikely that such a measure would be considered constitutional.

It appears that there are several debates about the issue of formal educational qualifications currently playing out in our society. 

Joburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda has refused to confirm what his highest qualification actually is, while Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane faces claims that he did not write a proposal for his Master’s thesis. 

There is evidence that the lack of educational qualifications for the majority of our councillors is having an impact on governance. Despite calls for office bearers to meet certain educational requirements, it is unlikely that such a measure would be considered constitutional.

From time to time, qualifications become a battlefield in our politics. Often, they start with a scandal involving a faked qualification. 

One of the most famous is Daniel Mthimkhulu, who was used by then Prasa CEO Lucky Montana to claim that new locomotives would run on our railways. Unfortunately, Mthimkhulu was a fraud and a liar. And the trains were too tall to use our network. 

Then, more recently, Daily Maverick exposed how the CEO of the Johannesburg Roads Agency, Tshepo Mahanuke, bought his PhD.

This kind of scandal has become so routine that Cabinet statements now routinely end with the qualification that, “all appointments are subject to the verification of qualifications and the relevant clearance”.

The issue is now beginning to burn more hotly. 

News24 recently reported that an official investigation had found that Mabuyane was involved in a plan to fake himself a Master’s degree. It is also not entirely clear how he qualified to study for a Master’s when he did not have an Honours degree first (his spokesperson has said that a university can sometimes decide to use life experience to waive the requirement for an Honours degree to pursue a Master’s).

Mabuyane claims that he is being set up and that these allegations have been “concocted”.

While he is likely to mount a spirited defence (including in court), he may face calls to stand down if it is found that he did lie.

Meanwhile, Kwamanda has refused at least once to answer questions about his qualifications. This follows other questions about whether he was vetted after an astonishing interview on Carte Blanche on Sunday night. Al Jama-ah leader Ganief Hendricks told the programme that his vetting of Gwamanda included speaking to his mother.

Kwamanda has told EWN that the qualification issue did not matter as he could be a “black Steenhuisen”, a reference to DA leader John Steenhuisen’s never-hidden matric qualification.

Steenhuisen is not alone in our politics. Recently, the SA Local Government Association (Salga) confirmed that 69% of councillors have either a matric or a lower qualification. 

Salga is clearly worried about this, but has chosen its public statements on this issue very carefully.

Considering the state of local government in eight of the nine provinces (the obvious exception is the Western Cape) this leads to questions about whether there is a link between the incredibly poor governance and the lack of educational qualifications among councillors.

For some the argument goes like this: How can someone who has not finished school follow a financial statement, or ask questions of a chief financial officer, or properly interrogate a detailed plan put forward by a City Manager with a Master’s in Public Administration?

But it is not nearly so simple. It is simply not true that qualifications will determine whether someone succeeds in a particular job or not.

When Des van Rooyen, the “most qualified Finance Minister we have ever had”, resigned, financial markets breathed a sigh of relief, with almost the entire financial sector agreeing that Pravin Gordhan, a man with a pharmaceutical qualification, was the right person to take over as Finance Minister.

It may also be important to ask why people with so few qualifications end up in South African politics.

For a start, just imagine trying to make progress through an education system which is so bad that 81% of our Grade 4s cannot read for meaning? Where you are growing up with no books, no electricity, no printed words, no money and often little teaching.

Gwamanda may well be among millions who have tried to emerge with a qualification, but found the odds too difficult and the mountains too steep. And who can blame them?

In some cases, there were better options or people needed to spend time working to feed their families and younger siblings. Or there was just nothing to gain by staying in the school system any longer. If a system has failed you for eight years, would you stay in it for another four?

At the same time, it is clear that many politicians believe there is value in qualifications, and many have studied while in office. Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor recently received a PhD (although, in her case, she was following her daughter who had already received one); Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe received a Master’s degree while ANC secretary-general and was able to get an MBA more recently; Mbuyiseni Ndlozi famously worked towards his PhD while an MP – the list goes on.

This suggests that those who fail to get through our schooling system are failing not through any fault of their own. It is the system around them.

Many of our councillors were unable to get a qualification and went into politics. In some cases, this is because no other options were available. In others, it’s simply because their communities wanted them to represent them and knew their capabilities when they made that decision.

But this also means that those who believe there should be educational requirements for office-bearers may be an educated minority. Considering that for many years only around half of those who entered Grade 1 received a matric, it is clear that the majority of people in our country do not have a post-matric qualification.

Considering our history, people who make this argument may also bring back difficult memories of how difficult it was for black people to get a proper higher education during apartheid (in many cases even those who were able to overcome so much to achieve this are living today with the scars of that experience).

As well intentioned as these suggestions are, there may be another argument for these people to confront.

Our Constitution is clear that every adult South African has the right to vote. From this right, given to everyone, flows the right to engage in political activity, and from that, the right to hold office.

To put it another way, the principle is that if you can vote, you can be President.

There are few caveats to whether you can sit in the National Assembly – you cannot be an unrehabilitated insolvent; you cannot have been declared by a court of unsound mind; and you cannot have been convicted of an offence and sentenced to 12 months in jail without a fine (this appears to fall away five years after you finish your sentence).

In other words, to say that someone has to have an educational qualification to hold a position in our politics would be unconstitutional. This is why we have already had a president with little formal schooling.

It is unlikely that this will change; it would be seen as undemocratic to ever impose such a limitation on holding public office.

While this is probably the right choice, it also means that the problems outlined by Salga about a lack of qualifications will continue.

It is also likely that politicians will continue to hold qualifications in high regard, and there will be more scandals in the future.

Still, and remarkably, our society is becoming more transparent. It can sometimes appear almost impossible to keep anything secret. Those who try to lie their way through a degree will continue to be found out. Anyone who achieves high office, however briefly (as Tshwane’s recent Mayor Murunwa Makwarela discovered), can expect all their smallanyana skeletons to be exposed.

Over time, this may have the effect of deterring politicians from faking their qualifications and preventing scandals in the future.

In the meantime, what should not be forgotten is that the real task for our society is to improve both access to, and the quality of the education our children receive.

This is a long hard task, but if we do not do this, we are literally stealing our children’s future. DM


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