Defend Truth


The obsession with qualifications and education is misplaced and dangerous


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

There are millions of people in South Africa who have not finished school, or who did not go to university for a variety of reasons, and to dismiss them would be a travesty.

The obsession with “qualifications” that so often and so maliciously is thrown about by a segment of society, those generally opposed to white people and non-revolutionary black people, really is terribly tedious, a waste of time, toxic, and conceals more than it reveals. Much of it emanates from EFF-types who imagine their leaders are highly educated and have “superior logic”. For what it’s worth, it will be shown in due course just how spurious and indeed how facile this purported knowledge base is… 

This toxicity and malice are, of course, not limited to the EFF. One Busani Ngcaweni has demanded a type of truth and reconciliation commission on the academic qualifications of academics and ordinary people — if we have to be generous to the ANC’s reinvention of Anatoly Lunacharsky or Nadezhda Krupskaya (depending on whom you admire most, as head and inspiration of the old Soviet Narkompros). Altogether, their fixation is terribly weak for at least two reasons. Most people who made it through South African education systems over the past two years have had to jump over very low academic barriers to entry and exit. 

Pass one, pass all

Social progression (not social progress, which is necessary) has been one of the defining practices of South Africa’s education systems. This should not be confused with education for social progress. Social progression here means two main things. The first is to lower pass levels in higher education to the point where those pupils who have made it through high school but can barely read and understand complex concepts and sentences, are able to pass. The second is to quite literally move pupils to the next level. First, avoid bottlenecks. Second, avoid the wrath of parents, students and activists, and third, satisfy ideological arguments about curriculums that are too Eurocentric, insufficiently African, and, as we have witnessed, because exams are considered to be “too difficult” — so pass one and pass all. 

One should not ignore the fact that history is replete with successful achievements in science (physics); the humanities (art history); the social sciences (economics), and in the professions, such as law or accountancy. It is inappropriate, then, not to dismiss education tout court. We can do so without ignoring the grand failure of education during the democratic era, and we’re not talking about private education. 

Montfort Mlachila and Tlhalefang Moeletsi of the International Monetary Fund concluded: “South Africa’s education budget is comparable to OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries as a percent of GDP and exceeds that of most peer sub-Saharan African countries in per capita terms. The main explanatory factors are complex and multifaceted, and are associated with insufficient subject knowledge of some teachers, history, race, language, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. Low educational achievement contributes to low productivity growth, and high levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.” 

Great expectations

It would be disingenuous if we were to ignore the fallacy of education as the surest road to peace and prosperity. Again, education has an important role to play in social progress. Globally, however, one of the greatest fallacies has to be the promises of the Enlightenment that education would lead us to a better world.

In the interwar period, US President Woodrow Wilson’s liberal idealism included the belief that if people were only more educated the world would be a more peaceful place. One of the great expectations of the European Enlightenment was that education, especially the scientific method, would make the world a much better place, and “education should foster creativity, critical thinking and self-actualisation”. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “Let us harness the hope and optimism of youth to heal our fractured society

In an early lecture, while president of Princeton University in 1902, Wilson stated that solid educational grounding would promote “men” to “the stature of real nobility”. His liberal international idealism served as the basis for the post-war liberal international economic order. It would be remiss if we ignored his sexism, especially his belief that women had to serve men, the fact that he felt no need to apologise for slavery and racism towards Hungarians and Italians, and his unshakeable belief in the supremacy of the “English race”. 

Let’s reflect briefly on the Enlightenment, with the caveat that it is an enormous project. Briefly put, and never mind Steven Pinker’s attempt to rescue the Enlightenment, the 20th century has seen the worst wars in the history of the modern era. 

Consider just Pinker’s contentions in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and what he described as “the Long Peace” and the post-war period “when the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another”. He ascribed this to a “blessed state of affairs…” when “two entire categories of war — the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them — no longer exist”, but he makes concessions about superpower conflict in small-country proxy wars among “client states”. 

Now consider the words of the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, at a three-day summit on world food security: “Today, more than one billion people are hungry. Six million children die of hunger every year — 17,000 every day.” Let us now add up the number of children dying of hunger since the end of World War 2 and we have about 390 million casualties of a war on the poor. 

There may not be trench warfare, as Pinker suggested, but the quiet deaths of millions of children around the world are equally horrific. And we have yet to add to Pinker’s wish-dream, wars in the former Yugoslavia, Yemen and Syria, his country’s wars against the people of Iraq and Iran, the destruction of Libya and the Pentagon’s desire to bomb Iran. 

All the above is evidence and arguments about the weaknesses of “education”… Back in South Africa, John Steenhuisen’s detractors would insist that he keep his mouth shut because he “only has matric”.

This is fine. But it misses the point entirely. Formal education is necessary but insufficient. Also, there is selective amnesia at work and possible race-baiting. The person who tweeted the above surely has commented on Mshushisi Daniel Mthimkhulu, who with his fake doctorate was employed by Prasa and received pay in excess of R15-million while incurring hundreds of millions of rands in losses on trains that could never be used on South Africa’s railway infrastructure. 

The same person who criticised Steenhuisen, Ndabezitha Zulu, has yet to make the argument that Jacob Zuma was qualified for his position. I know at least one South African who has only a matric certificate and was the most exceptional Cabinet minister and garnered respect around the world for his intellect and vision.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Bitter beginnings — last year’s economic and political problems segue into the New Year 

There are millions of people in South Africa who have not finished school, or who did not go to university for a variety of reasons; to dismiss them would be a travesty. There were times when many of us did not even finish high school, but that never stopped us from entering institutions of higher learning, passing entrance exams, and excelling. 

I don’t speak for Steenhuisen, but I do for millions of people who did not finish high school. If the (alleged) fakery and fraudulence of EFF qualifications are anything to go by — and there is little doubt that they will be the government in the future — we’d best be prepared for logical fallacies, race-baiting, erasure, rapine and revenge and the politics of violence and discrimination — you don’t need education for that, just an insatiable desire to be a revolutionary who kills. So much for the enlightenment, education for peace and educated leaders. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Well said. A Matric certificate may get you a job working for the ANC (you may not get paid) but in reality, it only says you finished school. Many high achievers got there without a formal education.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    An argument can be made that some of the more educated people are causing some of the greatest social and racial divisions of current times with their identity politics (both left and right). Fallacies such as all white people are racists as one example, are held up high by some academics to a degree that they silence all that don’t agree with their opinions, including ruining careers and livelihoods of others. Ad hominem attacks are just as standard for our highly educated as they are for others, sometimes packaged a little more elegantly, but it happens all the time.

  • David Stevenson Stevenson says:

    We should not categorize ability purely by bits of paper. The considerations should be versatility, innovation and experience.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    The problem you have with education is definition. The Enlightenment school of thinking definitely did not have South Africa’s paltry excuse of “education” in mind when suggesting proper education would promote peace. You just cannot equate the two concepts and state that the Enlightenment was screwed up.

    Also, in your diatribe about wars that the USA has been involved in, you pointedly ignore the role of Russia in Afghanistan, chemical bombing of Syrians and Turks, and the current heinous invasion of Ukraine and the associated murder of thousands of Ukranian civilians. Quite clearly you are a very biased man.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    I would agree that formal qualifications are not necessarily that important. However education is very important. Abraham Lincoln had little formal education, but self taught himself to a high level. If John Steenhuizen did not continue to learn and educate himself by reading and exposing himself to new ideas, I would be very concerned. I am sure he does, or he would not be able to operate at the level he is at.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      I would be equally nervous to be operated on by a surgeon who did not have proof of his qualifications, no matter how bright he or she might be….qualifications are quite important in some cases!

  • Kirsty Coetzee says:

    Did Mr Lagardien drop the mic after this magnificent rebuke? He should have. Legend!

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Dr Lagardien is surely just being provocative. One the one hand the damage that incompetent cadres have done to the SA economy is there for all to see. On the other hand, education alone is not enough – experience is also necessary. I say this possessing two Ph.D.s . What is important is wisdom which equates to knowledge (mainly gained through education) and experience, of a suitable nature. This debate is not a new one and has been around for many decades.
    Also it seems to me that it is mainly ANC cadres who claim academic qualifications which they do not possess.

  • Mike Schroeder says:

    I was initially worried by the headline, but after reading it yes it makes sense!

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Maybe, just maybe, a read of Omphemetse S Sibanda’s article in Maverick titled “Our education system is broken and nobody seems to be doing anything to fix it” might help.

  • John Smythe says:

    I work with someone who has two master’s degrees and is currently studying for a PhD. She is extremely difficult to work with because she actually doesn’t fully understand the day-to-day BAU subject matter of her job. But when she feels cornered and queried, out comes the aggression and degrees and how much more educated she is than the rest of us and that our level of understanding isn’t quite where hers is. So, she gets left out of decision-making processes and actions. So much for education. Tertiary education is too often the gatekeeper that blocks more capable people from showing and adding their true value in the workplace and society.

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