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Dr Jordan and Mr Hide

On Monday night, the inevitable happened. Pallo Jordan resigned from Parliament. Although he attempted to simultaneously resign from the ANC, and its NEC, it is not clear whether his decision was accepted by the party itself. After a week of sustained pressure, during which Jordan’s eerie silence and period of hiding sent out a clear signal to South Africans, he had to go. So public was his self-inflicted shaming that to continue, as though it was business as usual, would have been foolish to say the least.

Jordan’s case is a sad one. It represents the fallibility of even the gifted among us. There is no doubting that Jordan is, by and large, a hugely respected figure who has earned the admiration of his friends and enemies alike. His political stature and intellectual prowess are a formidable contribution to South Africa’s development, whether it was during the dark days of apartheid or the light ones of democracy. That is without question.

But, his undoing is also a cause for concern. For let us not forget what he did: he committed academic fraud. And for someone who revelled in the lofty heights that academia presented, his sin is even less forgivable. For he did not choose to give himself a fake degree or diploma of ordinary standing. Instead, he chose to give himself the highest honour, and most demanding accolade of them all; the PhD.

To those outside academia, this may seem negligible. After all, he wasn’t thieving millions of rands or existing on the take. He just gave himself an extra degree. But, for the very few people who ever come to hold such a degree, one that should not only contribute entirely new knowledge to the discipline in which it is written, and which represents the greatest personal and professional test of their lives, we cannot let this slide. It would demean their achievement and the prestige we place upon the attainment of such a high honour.

And Jordan must have known this. For in deliberately, or negligently, allowing people to believe that he, too, had taken such a degree, he would have known what power it gave him. Gravitas, deference, influence, access. All of these come with the title and the knowledge behind it.

Trivialising the scale of his corruption does not make it any better.

There have been two primary responses which people have made in the aftermath of this scandal. One is to say that we place too much emphasis on titles and formal education. The other is to suggest that he deserves high praise for resigning.

The former response is understandable. In a society where access to education is mostly determined by resources and where achievement may not necessarily be reflective of talent, there exists a legitimate need to differentiate the two. But an awareness of the relationship between resources and talent in assessing intelligence, generally, does not mean we should adopt that here specifically. Jordan had every opportunity to take the degree. But he did not.

The latter response is also saddening. For it is reflective of how poorly we have come to think of ourselves. Jordan only resigned after the evidence against him was made public. This was also after the journalists in question were not silenced by his offer to give them exclusive writing rights of his memoirs. Either his sense of hubris is so inflated that he thought he could negotiate his way out of his falsity or he was so desperate to keep the truth from coming out that he made the offer out of a moment of deep anxiety. It was probably a combination of both.

In any event, the praise that has been heaped on him during this ignominious exit from the public stage is curious. He has been compared to other former politicians who were either booted out of office or carried out in a coffin. That he resigned is so unique that its novelty is being allowed to overshadow the very reason for his resignation. That cannot be correct. If anything, it shows how used to shoddy treatment we have become that anything marginally better than our galling status quo is treated as though it is wondrously superior. Let’s be clear: he resigned because he was caught. Not because he was motivated to do the right thing. If he was so concerned with being as committed to righteousness, as his supporters suggest, he would have corrected the error ages ago. His failure shows his deliberate duplicity or negligent oversight. Neither paint him in a particularly good way.

South Africans are seemingly so desperate to find themselves a hero that they will even worship those who are guilty but show a modicum of remorse. If that is the new standard that we have set to identify our nation’s heroes then we are in deep trouble.

Being consistent when applying standards of morality and acceptability may be difficult. That is especially the case when a rigorous standard is being applied to those who you care for and respect. But we should measure the strength of our convictions not when it is easy to apply them but, rather, when doing so makes us more uncomfortable. Courage, after all, is not about doing what is easy. It’s about standing for what is right. And as South Africans, we should demand more of our politicians. Because we deserve it.

First published on Voices