Pallo Jordan: A great life's painful question mark

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

This weekend the Sunday Times ran a story suggesting that Dr Pallo Jordan should drop the “Dr”. In essence, despite extensive checks, no proof could be found of his university qualifications, and Jordan suggested in an SMS that he had made some kind of Faustian pact with himself – furthermore allegedly trying to make a deal with the journalist to drop the story. In other words, it would appear the doctorate is a bit like the ANC’s non-contradictory economic policy. It doesn’t exist. And yet there is no huge outcry. Why not?

It is not often that the Sunday Times is given to devote an entire page to an SMS conversation between one of its journalists and the subject of its story. It says something about the personality of Jordan that even this particular conversation is so entertaining. It also appears to show, in the man’s own words, that the paper is right on the facts. (Before threatening to sue, that is.) And while Jordan himself has not responded formally to the paper’s claims since their publication, and appears to be overseas at the moment, it’s hard to see how he could square any piece of paper with what he says in that conversation. In other words, he just doesn’t have the doctorate.

What is more than odd about this case, is that unlike other phantom qualification scandals that we’ve seen - and they’ve been more than a couple over the last few years - 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.

That said, there are also good reasons as to why there has been no large-scale condemnation, burn the politician in the town-square outrage that we do so well at in this country.

The first 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 [or even one of President Jacob Zuma’s “Clever Blacks” – Ed]. No, he’s far more than that. He’s incredibly well-read, hugely knowledgable, and seems to have a grasp of everything. He’s the kind of guy who, if he wasn’t spending his week condemning the Sunday Times and all who sail in her, who’d be writing about how the First World War and our role in it (which started a century ago on Monday) changed our society, or about how the conflict between Israel and Gaza has similarities but is also different to our history, or about how the current US-Africa summit is just a bid by capitalism to take on China. And all of it would be interesting, fun, and insightful.

Rarely among ANC heavyweights (and don’t forget, Jordan has been on the NEC for years, and the National Working Committee as well, from time to time), he has a flexible intellect. Not for him that loyal support of any one group or idea or party at all costs. When there were mounting cries for a Media Appeals Tribunal during the ANC’s National General Council in 2010, Jordan was the chair of the party’s communications committee. I well remember the late-night briefing that started at around 2am on that commission. Jordan came out with a bold statement that it was the ANC that gave South Africa the internet. As Al Gore was not in the room at the time, several hacks felt honour-bound to attack him. One reporter from Die Burger got it particularly badly, as time and again he and Jordan tackled each other. Eventually Jordan looked at him and uttered the immortal reply: “Where are you from? Die Burger…the paper that gave us Hendrik Verwoerd. Thank you very much.” Even at that late hour, it brought a massive laugh.

It was only several days later that the realisation dawned that the one question Jordan didn’t want to be asked was whether he believed there should be such a tribunal. Because clearly he didn’t. And just because he was slightly outrageous, it was the one question nobody asked him.

It is probably this flexibility that has also won him the support of other intellectuals. Professor Steven Friedman, not one to suffer fools gladly, wrote on his Facebook page that while he didn’t know if the claims about Jordan’s qualifications were true, he did know that he was “one of our outstanding intellectuals….that he is extremely well read, has a passion for ideas…and that if he had chosen to enter academic life, his impact would have been immense.” Higher praise from Friedman is rare. He also points out that unlike other cases where false qualifications have been claimed, it seems unlikely that Jordan benefited, either financially or politically, from making this false claim.

Professor Somadoda Fikeni, the political analyst and academic, has made similar comments about Jordan. He’s also suggested that it’s rather interesting that this information just happened to fall into the lap of the Sunday Times.

And that’s an interesting point all on its own. It would seem quite strange that the paper’s journalist here, Gareth van Onselen (who has his own interesting backstory) suddenly decided to investigate Jordan’s qualifications. Maybe he did; maybe he was pointed in the right direction by someone. We would never expect him to say - one doesn’t ask a journalist about their sources. But certainly Jordan has become more critical of the ANC, and its current leadership of late. In particular he used his Business Day column to say the party should show “moral leadership” over Nkandla. In a country less cynical than ours, perhaps no one would make the link. Here, there will be some who will automatically do so.

It has become increasingly common, and increasingly depressing of late, to watch those we respect turning into giants with feet of clay. Even those who seemed to just live in higher plane than us ordinary mortals, such as the Independent Electoral Commission’s Chair Advocate Pansy Tlakula, are no longer what they once were; Jordan now joins those who appear to have lied to us.

Having said that, perhaps we need to be careful to rush to judgment. 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. That’s why some people, no names mentioned, find themselves the subject of outrage almost no matter what they do, because we’re judging their latest action in the context of what they have done before. 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. DM

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick