Opinion

'Dr Jordan,' I presume - On making a big thing out of a small thing

Danny Schechter

Pallo Jordan's alleged falsification of his qualifications should be kept in perspective, argues Danny Schechter.

Pallo Jordan. (AFP)

I have an honorary doctorate, but no one has ever called me “Doctor”, except maybe Reverend Jesse Jackson who jokingly gives everyone that title. 

I graduated from college at Cornell University and have a master’s degree from the London School of Economics (LSE). 

Want to see my diplomas? Not sure I can find them.

Is this a big deal? Not really. Does it even matter?

I raise these less than extraordinary achievements as a way of commenting on a story in the Sunday Times by a very eager investigative reporter, keen on exposing a widely admired freedom fighter, and someone I respect a great deal, Pallo Jordan.

He stands accused – horror of horrors – of being called “doctor” without a PhD or medical degree, and also lists among his credentials on an official CV degrees from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the LSE, which he does not have.

What’s not cited is that he was forced to leave the US and the University of Wisconsin because of political activism in the anti-Vietnam war era. He never had the chance to finish his degree. He was soon plunged into a guerilla war, not a world of footnotes. 

How significant are these questionable academic credentials when compared against his far more significant achievements, which show a lifetime of devotion to the liberation movement and independent thought?  

I first got to really know Jordan back in my LSE days in London and can say, for the record, that I learned more from him than most of my esteemed professors.

Serious credentials
My pedigree degrees pale in the face of his serious credentials, acquired in a liberation struggle in which many died and in which he too was almost a casualty. His track record includes:

  • Minister of the department of arts, culture science and technology 2004 – 2009
  • Minister of the department of environmental affairs and tourism 1996 – 1999
  • Minister of posts, telecommunications and broadcasting 1994 – 1996
  • Member of the civil service committee of the ANC 1992
  • Member of the ANC elections committee 1992, where he played a key role as a press spokesperson during the 1994 national elections.
  • Member of the national working committee of the ANC 1991
  • Director of information and publicity of the ANC 1989 – 2004
  • Secretary of information of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia 1988
  • Member of the constitutional committee of the ANC 1986
  • Convenor of the ANC’s national executive committee’s strategy and tactics committee 1985 – 1989
  • Administrative secretary of the national executive committee of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia 1985 – 1988
  • Head of the ANC’s department of information and publicity research unit in Lusaka, Zambia 1980 – 1990
  • Head of Radio Freedom in Luanda, Angola 1977 – 1979

In addition to the positions he held, Jordan was also wounded in a book bomb attack by an apartheid hit squad at Mozambique’s Centre of African Studies, which killed Ruth First.

He was held and abused by ANC security during apartheid as they falsely believed he may have been a spy or disloyal to the struggle.

He was fired from a Cabinet post by former president Nelson Mandela after having the guts to challenge the then president on failing to consult the collective on a key issue. A popular member of the ANC’s national leadership, he was reinstated to another post and was frequently re-elected to the ANC’s national executive committee.

So, why would he allegedly falsify his credentials to be discovered by “the first they build you up, and then they tear you down” media, hungry for a “scoop”, and always playing the game of the politics of personal destruction? 

Does this lapse deserve to be treated like some kind of war crime?

Unlikely politician
I don’t know why Jordan felt the need for titles he didn’t earn – perhaps some insecurity, perhaps another reason we don’t yet know. Was it vanity? Or something suggested as necessary by other officials who wanted to make him and the ANC sound more “professional”? To my knowledge, no one called him “Dr”, or even “Mr Jordan”, just “Pallo”. Have you ever met a more unlikely politician?

It certainly wasn’t necessary to get himself on that gravy train to material gain that still seduces many of his comrades. Why would he try to puff himself up? Was it just status seeking in a culture too often impressed with labels? 

He was always an intellectual, just not an institution-tied academic. He sneered at that.

Everyone who knows him knows he is straight talking and often self-deprecating, snarky and humorous, but also given to thoughtful dissenting opinions and outspoken positions. 

At the same time, like all of us, he has flaws and weaknesses. He wouldn’t be human otherwise.

Think about his late leader, Nelson Mandela, whom he loved and quarrelled with, and who shared in his final book Conversations with Myself all sorts of admissions or confessions about his own contradictions, insensitivities and mistakes.   

Madiba’s humility and honesty are what we remember and respect, not his indiscretions. 

People are often complicated and contradictory.

I certainly am. I am sure Jordan has, in a long life of service, no doubt made decisions he was not always proud of in his personal and political life. There are surely mistakes of judgment in his life and loves, as there are in my own. Ask my ex-wives.

He certainly didn’t handle that pursuing news hound from the Sunday Times well. He assumed he was an honest truth seeker, not a malicious career destroyer. He didn’t check on the reputation of this finger-pointer (and his connection to a rival political party) and unwisely thought he could negotiate with him or neutralise his negative intent. The “reporter”, if that’s what he is, wanted to take him down and he naively played along, incriminating himself further.

As a politician he should have known that the hint of a cover-up is always worse than the crime. Put another way, “what a web we weave when first we practice to deceive”.

The appearance of arrogance is also always counter-productive. Sometimes that flows from insecurity too.

Do Jordan’s academic misadventures in the 1960s and 1970s really matter significantly at this point in the context of a life that gave so much to so many? 

Is it fair or just to cheaply smear him, and by extension his whole career, as a “fraud”? Have we lost all sense of proportion? 

Black leader who got into trouble
Let me cite another example of a respected black leader who got into trouble over his academic work with errors that may have diminished his reputation in scholarly circles but not his public legacy.

His name was Martin Luther King Jr, one of the preachers who was called “reverend doctor” by many of his supporters, including his acolyte Jackson, who makes fun of that terminology today. 

Snopes.com, a website that investigates online rumours and conspiracy charges, wrote this about King’s conflict with the academic fact-check police:

“During the 1980s, archivists associated with the Martin Luther King Papers Project uncovered evidence that the dissertation King prepared for his PhD in theology from Boston University, ‘A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman’, was plagiarised, and the story broke in the national media in 1990. King included in his dissertation a good deal of material taken verbatim from a variety of other sources without proper attribution [or any attribution at all], an act, which constitutes plagiarism by any reasonable academic standard.” 

“In 1991 a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had plagiarised portions of his doctoral dissertation but did not recommend the revocation of his degree.”

Is this a factoid that history makes a big deal about? No. 

I am not comparing Jordan’s legacy to King Jnr’s, only noting how contested the credentials we live by, or think we need, often are. 

Before and after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela was showered with honorary doctorates from universities the world over. He never chose to be called “Doctor”, but he could have. Go figure.

Given all the slime and sleaze in South African politics, is it the Pallo Jordans of the world we in the media should be going after? What tender did he illegally receive, what corporate board does he illegally sit on? How has he exploited his positions to advance himself financially, or steal from the public treasury? How important is this tempest in a teapot that appears to be the consequence of an unfortunate error of ego and overreaching, encouraged, no doubt, by party aparatchiks?

I am sure he will soon reflect on this misdemeanour that is being blown up into a felony. Let’s give him that chance. To me, he always was a doctor, a doctor of jazz, the music he knew so well. Maybe this was all just one of his riffs.

Danny Schechter wrote Madiba A-Z: The Many Worlds of Nelson Mandela which includes reflections from Pallo Jordan (Jacana, 2013)

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