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Doctor who? You can’t fake leadership

Another week has passed and two more prominent South Africans have been accused of faking their academic credentials. This time, however, the ignominy is particularly cringe-worthy: our ambassador in Washington, Mninwa Mahlangu, and his counterpart in Tokyo, Mohau Pheko, have reportedly been caught out for doctoring their CVs. That they remain in their posts is itself a scandal.

In the wake of Pallo Jordan’s fraud being uncovered, many of our leading columnists fell over themselves in their rush to explain the psychology of such a high-risk endeavour. Seemingly motivated by their endearment for Jordan, all manner of fanciful explanations were offered as to why such a wholesome fellow like him would do such a thing. Mahlangu and Pheko have not been so lucky.

This difference in reaction is important. On one hand, it tells us that the excuses cooked up after Jordan’s eventual retreat were motivated by his personality rather than his defenders’ substance. On the other, it also tells us that the original sin – of faking it – is worthy of the harshest judgment. And so it should be.


But, as I wrote at the time, Jordan’s example ‘‘represents the fallibility of even the gifted among us’’. So too do those of Mahlangu, Pheko, and many others accused of doing a similar thing.

As a society, we have a particularly schizophrenic attitude towards academic qualifications and political power. We value and undermine it all at the same time. Think of the two men who have dominated our nation’s politics for the last 15 years: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. The former was heralded as an (African) intellectual giant when commanding the world stage. But those same qualifications counted against him when he was deaf to the many complaints he received at home. His academic pedigree marked him out as being gifted one moment and aloof and uncaring the next. Conversely, Zuma’s rise is characterised, alternatively, as a truly democratic miracle (the rise of an uneducated herd boy to the highest office in the land) or an unmitigated disaster (for the exact same reason). And Prince Mashele’s recent attack on Zuma falls into that same trap.

The narrative we create around the relationship between education and leadership is important. It must be undertaken rigorously so as to understand that even the most highly educated can be incapable of leadership, and that those without a litany of degrees can be. Make no mistake, intellectual ability is part of the mix of a powerful leader. But intellectual prowess alone is not enough. It takes a mix of emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, and a raft of interpersonal skills too.

That is not to downplay the praise high academic achievers deserve. Nor is it to excuse or justify what the fakers have done. To do so, ‘‘would demean the achievement and the prestige we place upon the attainment of … a high honour (like the PhD)’’. Rather, it is aimed at shifting our metric of evaluation away from performing something like a CV check – a tick-box exercise – to determine individual worth. Now only if we could start people thinking in the same way about race.

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  • Kameel Premhid is a hack. He has opinions and writes about them. He dabbles in everything, which he shamelessly self-promotes, in an attempt to anger as many people as possible. He holds a BA and LLB from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is reading for a degree at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. Follow him on Twitter: @kameelpremhid

One Comment

  1. Pakane Lamola Pakane Lamola 5 March 2015

    Unfortunately my current intellectual acumen failed me to unravel the actual purpose of this article. If the objective is to credit leadership without academic credentials, I recommend that we start institutions that can equip us of such training so that we have alternative to academic leadership preparations.

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