13 August 2014

South Africa: Should More South African Politicians Be Like Pallo Jordan?


How much is honesty really worth in South African public life? A litany of untruths of differing kinds seems to be strewn around us. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, Chief Operating Officer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), was found to have lied about his qualifications to obtain a promotion; President Jacob Zuma seems to have been less than forthright in furnishing details on the construction of his Nkandla homestead; and last year, former minister of communications, Dina Pule, was eventually fired after being caught in a maelstrom of lies.

Motsoeneng and the president appear to continue unscathed even in the face of damning reports by the Public Protector.

Two weeks ago, the Sunday Times published the now-infamous text message exchange between African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Pallo Jordan and journalist Gareth Van Onselen about the former's academic qualifications.

The gist of it was that Jordan does not hold a degree from the London School of Economics, or a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as he has claimed repeatedly over the years and when he held public office.

Many arguments were offered in Jordan's defence: that one does not need to have a PhD to be regarded as an intellectual; that 'struggle' history makes people do strange things, which ought to be worthy of our empathy; and that the media is selective about the issues it highlights, which is reflective of the broader political economy of newsrooms.

Jordan had on several occasions taken swipes at members of his party for displaying less integrity than they should, so his position had really become untenable. The public harm was therefore in the lie that had been perpetuated here.

Many have argued that Jordan's intellectual ability is such that it is irrelevant whether or not he has a PhD. A PhD does not an intellectual make, yet the argument is flawed since it seeks to justify a lie. National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete might have been a brilliant driver, but did that give her the right to fake her driver's licence? The same argument can be extended to Jordan. No one disputes his intellectual prowess.

While the media may be selective about the cases it covers, that argument does not adequately deal with the merits of this matter. We should probably do a background check on all politicians and academics and those claiming to have degrees, but practically that is impossible. Recently, there were allegations about North West Premier Thandi Modise's CV and deficiencies in it.

Yet, after a week of much public debate and silence from Jordan, the ANC in Parliament under the leadership of Chief Whip Stone Sizani presented a rather lengthy defence of Jordan, whom Sizani said remained a source of pride for the ANC.

Barely a day later, however, Luthuli House issued a statement saying that Jordan had discussed the matter with ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and others, and that he was resigning from the ANC National Executive Committee and as a Member of Parliament.

The variance between the ANC in Parliament's statement and Luthuli House's statement also shows the deep schism between the different parts of the ANC. Neither really holds the ethical high ground given Luthuli House's dogged defence of President Zuma in relation to Nkandla and the landing of the Gupta aircraft at Waterkloof airforce base.

Yet, the differences between the statements could not have been more stark, and the ANC in Parliament will surely be scratching its head. At least Jordan's resignation will ensure that there is no in-fighting between the Parliamentary ANC caucus and Luthuli House on the issue.

As Mantashe said, the resignation was not 'an action of the faint-hearted.' It is indeed so that we do not require our politicians to go to university or to hold PhDs, but we do require that they not lie about it. Yet for Jordan, even in his embarrassment, there may still come redemption.

He has now resigned from his position as a Member of Parliament and of the ANC's National Executive Committee yet, at the time of writing, no reasons have been given. One can only assume however that he has felt the sting of the past week. Jordan has faced the wrong, and that is welcome during these times where denial and a lack of concern about public opinion has become the order of the day.

That we hoped it would not be so, and that we admire his intellect and his prowess, is neither here nor there. Jordan was found wanting, and part of building an ethical society is that we accept it when those we admire have failed in some way, and we don't try to sugar-coat it in relativism pertaining to the past.

Yet, the resignation also sends a strong message to Jordan's fellow ANC colleagues, the president included, that he may have erred in telling and perpetuating a lie, but he is able to take responsibility for his conduct.

One cannot help but think that as a society, we ought to welcome Jordan's actions, not seek to burn him at the stake now and increase his difficulty or embarrassment. We can then only hope that others such as Hlaudi Motsoeneng will take their lead from Jordan's actions, instead of seeking to cast brazen attacks on the Public Protector and our democratic institutions.

Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

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