The South African political system does not take education seriously. Education has lost its value as a key attribute of political leadership. It is neither a requirement for our Parliament nor is it a consideration for leadership in political parties.
The political environment has become so vulgarised that the learned are made to wrestle with the wretched of the Earth for leadership.
To be educated, let alone opinionated and rigorous — the things we acquire from education — are not welcomed in our politics. You almost need to be a sycophant, be vulgar and vicious in order to survive.
Thus, we see the learned showing no interest, leaving the political stage to be dominated by idiots.
Our politics has lost its altruistic value; very few are in it to serve. Neither is our political space a sanctuary of the virtuous; by any measure, it has become a refuge for fugitives.
Yet, there was a time in our history when people went into politics for ideals — lofty enough to die for. Interestingly, that was the time when education defined the character of political leadership.
Truth be told, the leaders of yore valued knowledge and appreciated the empowering nature of education. Indeed, you learn a lot more from formal education than reading, writing, and enumerating or acquiring a certificate.
In his treatise on education, Emile, philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau emphasises the importance of education in our lives: “Plants are formed by cultivation, men by education…We are born weak, we need strength; we are born entirely destitute, we need help; we are born stupid, we need understanding. All that we lack at birth and need in maturity is given us by education.”
Indeed, you have to water the plants, add manure, remove weeds and put down pesticides to protect them from insects if you want to have a good harvest. Human beings, too, need to nurture their minds to realise their full potential; and formal education is our best bet.
We go through formal education to imbibe knowledge and develop our cognitive abilities. Formal education equips us with the tools and methods of analysis. It helps us learn social mores and skills to foster relationships. Through education, we acquire the skills to earn a living.
While it is true that some leaders are born, many leaders are made through education. This is exactly why education has been a defining attribute of leadership.
Prioritisation of education
From the founding fathers of our liberation movements right through to the dawn of our democratic dispensation, education was a serious consideration in political leadership. The leaders then went to school to sharpen their intellect and hone their leadership skills.
A quick survey of the liberation movements, from the ANC to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and Azanian People’s Organization (Azapo), will reveal that the men and women who led these organisations were learned.
Not only did they acquire qualifications, they established schools and institutes to give others the opportunity to learn. Some even founded newspapers and wrote prolifically to conscientise their fellow countrymen. They understood that the pen can be mightier than the sword.
Both in exile and on Robben Island, the liberation movement encouraged its members to pursue and acquire formal education.
Many who were condemned to Robben Island came out with formal degrees. Nelson Mandela, for instance, acquired his BA degree from Unisa while he was on Robben Island. Former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke went into Robben Island without matric and came out with a degree.
Yet, there were exceptions like Jacob Zuma, who focussed on perfecting their “muravharavh” skills while others were studying.
Learn in order to lead
The ANC in exile was very clear about the role of education in political leadership and in heightening political consciousness. Young people who showed a penchant for learning and a precocity for leadership were sent to various universities to prepare them for future leadership responsibilities.
So serious was the ANC about education that it established the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco) in Tanzania to help young people who left South Africa to join the Struggle to pursue their education. Yes, they believed that the youth “can learn and fight at the same time”.
The importance of education was also recognised among those who perpetuated apartheid and those who supported the status quo. Read The Super Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond by Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom and you will see that in the National Party educational qualifications reigned supreme.
In the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), too, belligerence came second to education as a requirement for leadership.
Alas, today education is no longer a criterion for leadership. Educational qualifications and intellectual prowess no longer carve your pathway to leadership.
A scandal, it would seem, is now what defines the character of South African political leadership. The bigger the scandal the higher the prospect of becoming president.
Paul Mashatile has no reason to be worried about the ongoing “Mashatile Unmasked” reports in the media. His scandals will more than anything guarantee him the top job at the Union Buildings rather than his educational achievements. That is how our politics works.
While the EFF must be applauded for being the only party at the moment that seems to encourage its leaders to acquire formal education, the fact that its leadership has become synonymous with corruption shows yet again that scandal has become the defining attribute of political leadership.
But how did we get here?
Living off politics
There are two reasons that explain how we got here. The first is what acclaimed sociologist, Max Weber, characterises in his essay on Politics as Vocation.
“He who lives ‘for’ politics makes politics his life… He who strives to make politics a permanent source of income lives ‘off’ politics,” Weber wrote.
In South Africa, politics is a thriving vocation. The number of registered political parties — currently counting in the hundreds — is testimony to this. The majority of our politicians live off politics. Too many of them have no professions outside of politics. A lot more have no qualifications either.
The absence of an educational requirement for our Parliament, legislatures, councils and leadership in political parties has made our political landscape the only place where the uneducated and the destitute find refuge. As a result, politics is the only profession in which a doctor wrestles with a matriculant for leadership.
While the second reason is not mutually exclusive from the first, it is worth indulging. It is the phenomenon called “precedent”.
Precedent shapes and condones future behaviour. Once set, a wrong precedent is very difficult to reverse. It easily becomes part of the culture of an organisation or a people.
The ANC’s decision to catapult Jacob Zuma to the Union Buildings set a very bad precedent for South Africa. It did not only open the floodgates for scumbags to thrive in the ANC, it has since made the worst of us more emboldened.
After Zuma, the Union Buildings lost its prestige and sanctity as a place to be occupied by the best of us. Since then, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they are worthy of being the head of state.
With his lack of post-school qualification, John Steenhuisen is not the only one who feels emboldened to stand on a platform and declare his ambitions to become president of South Africa — even the convicted bank robber, Gayton Mackenzie, imagines himself receiving top-secret reports from the governor of the Reserve Bank.
The problem with precedent is that when you set a wrong one, you also take away your right to criticise others who commit the same missteps. So despite its history as an organisation that extolled educated leaders, after Jacob Zuma, the ANC cannot criticise the DA for installing John Steenhuisen as its leader and presidential candidate.
Neither does the current DA leadership have the legitimacy to criticise the ANC for adorning its grade 10 stooge, Kabelo Gwamanda, with the mayoral chains of the City of Gold.
The unfortunate message all of these convey is that education does not matter in politics. Yet, politics affects all facets of our lives.
However, does education really matter in political leadership?
This question has haunted the souls of London School of Economics Prof Timothy Besley and his colleagues for years. In their 2011 research paper titled, Do educated leaders matter? Besley et al analysed data of “more than one thousand political leaders between 1875 and 2004 to investigate whether having more educated leaders affects economic growth”.
Their study confirmed there was a correlation between the educational level of a leader and economic growth. It revealed that when an educated leader was replaced by a less educated one, the economy regressed and vice versa. The conclusion from this study is instructive — educated leaders matter and if you want economic growth, elect educated ones.
What would it take to restore the value of education in our body politic? We need legislative reforms to make this happen. The reforms should set minimum educational requirements — at least a degree — for one to be eligible to be a Member of Parliament, provincial legislature or municipal council. This will set a new precedent and compel political parties to field people who meet the criteria.
Not only will this restore the value of education in political leadership, it will create better prospects for our country. DM