SA's intelligentsia rallies to "Dr" Pallo Jordan's defence

Senior academics and journalists say Sunday Times revelations do not detract from ANC politician's intellectual eminence

A number of leading members of South Africa's intelligentsia have expressed support for prominent ANC intellectual and former cabinet minister Dr Z Pallo Jordan. This follows the, as yet undisputed, report in the Sunday Times that Jordan does not have a doctorate, and does not seem to have any postgraduate or undergraduate degrees at all.

The newspaper reported on Sunday that neither the University of Wisconsin-Madison nor the London School of Economics have any record of Jordan of receiving a degree from their institutions, though he did attend the former in the mid-1960s. This appears to contradict inter alia Jordan's official curriculum vitae, as posted on the website of the Department of Arts and Culture during his term of office as minister. This stated:

"After Jordan had finished his schooling in Cape Town, he attended various universities in South Africa, the USA and Britain. He left the country in 1962 to study at the University of Wisconsin in the US. He has acquired a number of degrees - including a post-graduate degree from the London School of Economics."

Jordan has, in the past, been commonly referred to as "Dr Pallo Jordan" in the press and official government communications. A profile of Jordan, then Minister of Arts and Culture, in Leadership Magazine in 2005 stated that "With degrees from several universities, including the University of Wisconsin, where he completed a doctorate in history, and the London School of Economics, Jordan could easily - and brilliantly - slip into quieter realm of academia. But with names like Zweledinga (promised land) and Pallo (destiny) and his long immersion in politics that won't be happening any time soon."

In an opinion piece in the Daily Maverick on Tuesday journalist Stephen Grootes commented that the appellation of "Dr" was clearly important to Jordan. He wrote: "Jordan seemed to almost demand to be called "Dr". Blade Nzimande is also a doctor (for real) and yet he's not someone you would necessary feel you have to refer to by those first two letters. But Jordan prided himself on it. It was clearly important to him.

However, the news that the claims made in Jordan's CV appear to be false, and that Jordan was unable to validate them despite numerous requests, has provoked a significant push-back. The argument made is that questions around Jordan's CV should in no way detract from his immense intellectual achievements.

Professor Mary Metcalfe, former MEC, Director-General and head of the School of Education at the University of the Witwatersrand defended Jordan. In a comment on Facebook she wrote:

"Firstly, Pallo's intellectual contribution and standing is leap years ahead of many PhD holders in the country. Secondly, there are many people who 'schooled' in the trenches of struggle who did not have the opportunity to complete formal qualifications but whose achievements are equivalent to or surpass those who did have that luxury. Pallo performs way ahead of the pack. It should not be the case that we value him (and others in a similar position) less because of the absence of formal qualifications. However, he needs to tidy up his CV so that it is accurate - I understand that CVs get rewritten all of the time for different purposes (and sometimes on one's behalf), and that 'abbreviations' happen, but he should stand tall and confident in his leadership and clarify the situation. If he has an honorary doctorate, I don't mind if he calls himself Dr."

TO Molefe, a contributing writer for the international New York Times, also commented on Facebook:

Sure. Pallo Jordan is a member of Parliament who's sworn an oath (or made a solemn affirmation) binding him to certain ethical standards. He shouldn't be allowed to get away with lying, if indeed he did lie, be it by commission or omission. But we should not wholly dismiss the fact that our society fetishises formal education as the singular mark of actual ability. The problems this fetish creates are compounded by the fact that access to education was and remains inequitable racially, economically and in a few other important ways. And no other mechanism exists for people to indicate their abilities to the rest of society. In such a situation, it is understandable why people feel the need to fake qualifications and keep up the ruse even when they subsequently establish their own individualised objective ways to signal their abilities.    

Professor Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, made a similar point to Metcalfe's in his initial comment on his Facebook page:

"I have no idea whether there is any truth in the attacks on Pallo Jordan's qualifications in a Sunday newspaper. What I do know is that Jordan is one of our outstanding intellectuals. Over the years, we have disagreed strongly from time to time but there was never any doubt about my respect for his intellectual ability. I was reminded of this when I was researching my book on Harold Wolpe and South African radical thought. Jordan's very generous response confirmed what I knew already - that he is extremely well read, has a passion for ideas, is highly intelligent and very perceptive. I am convinced that, had he chosen to enter academic life, his impact would have been immense. Frankly, I don't care whether he has a doctorate - formal qualifications are not a particularly good test of whether a person is an intellectual. We will remember Pallo Jordan's intellectual contribution long after we have forgotten this weekend's reports."

In a subsequent clarification on his original point Friedman commented:

"I just want to clarify what I was saying and what I wasn't. Of course I agree that it is not OK to lie in public and that he therefore needs to explain himself. But my point is that this matters rather less than people seem to think. If a person claims to have medical or accountancy or legal qualifications that they don't have, they are committing fraud because they cannot practice the profession without the qualification. But you don't need a doctorate to be an intellectual and so it is hard to see what a person gains from claiming a doctorate that they don't have except personal prestige. Jordan didn't need a doctorate to be a cabinet minister or to participate in the public debate and so he would not have defrauded anyone if he did lie. So I would like all the facts before I judge what happened but it is hard to see how fraud could have been committed here."

Friedman wrote that in his own case he had only acquired a doctorate late in his career, in 2007, as it was helpful as he wanted to move across to work in the universities. "Incidentally, my own doctorate is not a PhD, it is a DLitt, which is awarded if a panel of Professors agrees that your years of written work are of doctoral standard. By awarding the degree, they signal that what you were contributing before your doctorate was of doctoral quality even though you did not have a doctorate."

In his Daily Maverick piece Grootes noted that there had been no "burn the politician in the town-square outrage" directed against Jordan following the Sunday Times' revelations. One of the reasons for this, Grootes wrote, echoing Metcalfe and Friedman, is that "no matter what your view on Jordan, he is, first and foremost, a genuine intellectual. And that doesn't just mean he's clever. No, he's far more than that. He's incredibly well-read, hugely knowledgeable, and seems to have a grasp of everything."

Grootes concluded by cautioning against a rush to judgment on the matter. "While Jordan may well have committed some kind of fraud here, and while we will never view him in the same way again, we need to judge him on what else he has done for this country. It's not about condemning someone for one act; it's about the entirety of their life's work....At 72, Jordan has been spared the outrage so far, precisely because of his intellect, his sacrifices and the life he dedicated to the ANC and South Africa."

The view articulated by Friedman, Metcalfe and Grootes was not universally shared. Friedman was taken to task by, amongst many others, former COSATU General Secretary and Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa. Shilowa - who, unlike Jordan, came from a working class background, rose through union ranks and claimed no academic qualifications on his government CV - observed in his response to Friedman:

"The [Sunday Times] article in question doesn't question his intellect. It simply points out that the PHD claimed seemingly doesn't exist. If this is the case why is a defence on his intellect being mounted if not to say: "Guys, chill. Sure he lied. So what? He's a man of intellect. If the debate is on his intellect [why] raise it if not to defend him lying and offering a scoop?" I was in government. The CV posted was approved by me. Any false claims not removed are confirmed as part of my CV. Am not asking people to not defend him. Simply to acknowledge that in future they should take a similar position even on some amongst us that may be seen to be lowly beings based on intellect."

In a follow up comment Shilowa added:

"Dear Steven. I never thought the article is questioning his clarity of thought. Simply whether a Doctorate he claims exists or not. If it doesn't exist, then he surely is a fraud. It is not whether he has benefitted from it or not. Simply that if one lies about such matters, what else can they lie about. He doesn't need a doctorate for us to accept him and his contribution, but to ignore his feet of clay simply because it is Jordan in area we would have reacted differently were it someone smacks of double standards. I always thought we hold to high standards those who sets the bar higher."

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