You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in the developed world today, no matter how libertarian or how entranced by the polemics of Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, 1971), who does not want pilots, doctors, engineers and similar people to whom we frequently entrust our lives to have hard-earned verifiable qualifications – preferably from prestigious institutions or organisations – plus, if we had our way, several years of experience and mentorship by experts in these practical fields.

But what kind of formal qualification do you need to run the country, a council, a political party, a business or even to be a journalist?

Poor or shaky governance has a tendency to spark an outbreak of ‘credentialism’.

The people affected by such governance clamour for better formally qualified people. The leaders in their sights respond by stampeding for the protection of academia-endowed bona fides.

Maybe I’m being ungenerous. Maybe the African National Congress, gazing at the devastation it has wrought while ruling, is looking for ways ‘to do better’.

This may, in part, explain why the University of Fort Hare is currently in the middle of a Special Investigating Unit probe of allegations surrounding the enrolment of several top ANC leaders at the university’s School of Government and Public Administration.

Credentialism, a concept pushed by Illich, (whose work I was introduced to, not unsurprisingly, in the early 80s at Wits University, where it was a setwork for the Sociology 1 lectures presented by Duncan Innes and Eddie Webster) is the reduction of qualifications to status symbols.

The 70s saw the birth of the graduate economy that now besets us, and Illich and other disruptive social scientists of the era argued this would give learning institutions such as academia and medicine undue power and control over society and dominate other ways of assessing human potential and ability.

Preferred demographic

Credentialism is also aided and abetted when everyone who hasn’t a job prospect wants to go to university not for the joy of learning or because they have any real desire for academic life but because public and university funding is available to do so if they are in the preferred demographic. It is better than sitting around at home, and education inflation, combined with the destruction of basic education in this country, simply makes a normal three-year undergrad degree or diploma the equivalent of a decent pre-30%-pass-rate matric (or so recruiters hope).

When people intent on improving their intellectual image veer into the fraudulent or immoral, and a newspaper is able to gather enough detail and facts to expose this deviance, credentialism enters the public conversation.

One trawling run through LinkedIn confirms that compilation and construction of CVs and resumés has become such a creative art, utilising all the digital world has to offer including AI, that it probably warrants its own Oscar-style or Booker awards.

Most of the contenders for such awards are likely to be found in the recruiters’ social media playground of LinkedIn, polishing up their credentials and career paths until they shine like the stars they desire to be. However, potential judges would also have to take a close look at the talents behind fascinating sites such as,,

Recently they all published glowing (although sometimes clashing and confusing) versions of the career path of Johannesburg’s current mayor, Grade 10 school leaver Kabelo Gwamanda.

When someone like Gwamanda – whose only verified achievement in business or work since leaving school appears to have been to fail to register the alleged ponzi -type insurance scheme he operated in Soweto – is put in ultimate charge of a council budget of R80.9 billion, this calls for formal qualifications to be required of our political leaders before they take office.

Did a good job

Before, during and post-apartheid, many political leaders did not have formal qualifications relevant to their political work yet did a good job of it.

Yes, Mandela had a law degree. He also had a royal background. But are those the things that made him the politician many still revere?

As a politician with experience of local, regional and national legislatures remarked to me while I was writing this, the politicians currently in power have had more short courses relating to governance then any politicians before them.  Yet they still can’t manage to get it right.

It may be the quality of the raw material that’s preventing learning from taking hold.  More likely it is the ideology.  Perhaps it’s the quality of training – which would be yet another example of fruitless and wasteful expenditure on a cohort that has lost its moral compass in its determination to implement its National Democratic Revolution raison d’etre.

In the past decade we’ve had several exposés of fake qualifications among the cadres the African National Congress has chosen as leaders.

In 2014 ANC stalwart and cabinet veteran Pallo Jordan dropped the doctor title he’d been happy to accept for many years and stepped down from the cabinet when the Sunday Times revealed he’d never obtained his claimed London School of Economics doctorate.

In 2010 Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs Minister Sicelo Shiceka, who had claimed a Master’s in political economy from the University of the Free State, was revealed to have not completed his studies. That same year the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa took on Daniel Mshushi Mthimkhulu as its head engineer on the strength of a CV that proved to be fake. He now must pay back the millions he earned over 63 months with the company.

A matric he didn’t have

The SABC waved goodbye to two top people twice because of false claims: COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng who claimed a matric he didn’t have, and Ellen Tshabalala, the Board’s chair, who turned out not to have a B.Com and post-graduate degree from Unisa.

This should shock no one, not even Cyril.

Post-graduate degrees are particularly desirable accessories for the shallow men or women of politics who feel the need to bolster their image, have everything in the Louis Vuitton range already and have no strong attachment to morality.

The raging reds of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who would have the all the lumpenproletariat reduced to Stakhanovite peasants scrabbling on state-owned land, seem particularly keen to acquire and (most unforgivably) flaunt the post-graduate university degrees they’ve obtained.

I know what it is like to feel proud – and have a tremendous sense of achievement – when one becomes the first tertiary graduate in the family. It is admirable to aspire to academic qualifications that personally interest you, which will reward you after determined effort and give you the skills and knowledge to land that rare fish, the ideal, dream job, or, simply, help make you do your current job better.

But it is important as voters in a democracy that we do not let the inadequacy of our leaders push us into a false meritocracy and the imposition of a mandatory entry requirement to politics and government leadership. such as possession of an academic diploma or degree.

Survive if they deliver

Good politicians understand politics and how to connect with the electorate.

Successful politicians understand they’ve entered into a contract they’ve made with the electorate and will only survive if they deliver on their promises.

We should expect our politicians, in a modern society, at a minimum to be literate, numerate and articulate. There are ways of assessing these that don’t require formal qualifications.

We’d probably be more reassured if they a had a track record in their party that we can interrogate, experience in management, business or life they can bring to the table, knowledge of the world and how it works, the ability to learn more than they already know and the capacity to act and foresee a variety of consequences for any action they take.

Plus, it should go without saying, some evidence of a sense of morality (even if  many voters seem quite prepared to be relaxed on this requirement).

But, to return to my initial question:  What kind of formal qualification should you need to run the country, a council, a political party, a business or even to be a journalist?

The answer is: None.

Let them put themselves forward with passion and drive to do the work honestly and see it through; with literacy and numeracy; with the ability to communicate; and finally, with the willingness to slog long and hard to learn all you need to do, and to do the promised job to the satisfaction of the majority. 

Not the filter we need

Academic institutions are not the filter we need to up the quality of our leaders.

It is, after all, the voters who should be their principal educators and exam markers. It is we who will decide if these are honourable men and women whom we can trust.

Right now what we, the public, need is to be able to see for ourselves, as is our right, a coherent, complete, verified curriculum vitae of every one of our elected politicians, new and old. (My hand’s already up for Gwamanda’s). We can follow that up by demanding better verification processes from the Electoral Commission and all those many human resources and verification agencies and specialists we presumably pay for in the government and SOE sector.

We probably also need to lavish some rare praise on the media. In most cases we’d never know when credentials have been crooked, if it weren’t for them.

[Image: Caleb Holden on Unsplash]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.