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Lessons from the Dr Pallo furore

Pregs Govender

The "Dr" Pallo Jordan row should make us question the value we attach to status, position and wealth.

An apparent act of vanity: ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan has been exposed as not having a doctorate. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

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This week I watched the furore about ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan’s qualifications, alongside coverage of the devastating attacks on Gaza.

I remembered Jordan’s often thoughtful, independent and significant contribution to the struggle against apartheid and the transition to democracy. I read the reports on what appeared to be an act of vanity and wished that, in the reported exchange, this had simply been acknowledged with an apology.

I wanted the focus to return to how to stop those who are bombing children in Gaza, to those stealing public money in South Africa and to the systemic causes of the human rights violations before the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).

However, the public tearing down of Jordan continued to gain momentum.

I reread the conclusion of my book, Love and Courage, A Story of Insubordination. “Memory had surfaced and beyond it, a glimpse that none of us are fixed in heroic or despotic moments of history. Life, as it waxes and wanes, always provides opportunities for our humanity to emerge.”

Each of us has weaknesses and contradictions. We are all human.

Reconciliation
In 1994, Nelson Mandela, with other ANC leaders, led the reconciliation with the apartheid rulers. They did this, despite the fact that apartheid rulers were complicit in terrible atrocities, including murder, that the truth commission later exposed. They were fully aware that apartheid rulers had overseen the systematic brutalisation of people through its political, military, social and economic system. Despite all of this, they put peace, not revenge, first, ensuring a Constitution that recognised the inherent dignity of every human being. Jordan was part of the ANC’s leadership at this critical time.

In recent times, he has articulated principled positions, including respecting the independence of chapter nine institutions, such as the public protector, even when its Nkandla report raised questions about public spending on President Jacob Zuma’s home.

There have been different responses to the furore – for me it provoked a reflection on the challenge of transforming ourselves and our society. I scrutinised my own response to titles and “protocol”. I have been referred to and introduced as “Honourable Govender”, “Professor”, “Doctor” and even “Your Excellency”.

Last Friday, before the Sunday Times article on Jordan, I was at the National Water and Sanitation Summit organised by the newly appointed water and sanitation affairs minister. I had a nameplate in front of me that read “Adv Pregs Govender”. I attempted to correct it, but the young woman who had placed it smiled warmly as she walked away, saying “Embrace it!” Fortunately, I corrected the chairperson before he introduced me.

My alma mater (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) conferred an honorary doctorate in philosophy on me the year after I resigned as an ANC MP in 2002, after being the only MP to register opposition to the arms deal in the defence budget vote and for holding public hearings on HIV during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. The University of the Western Cape conferred an honorary doctorate in law on me about a year after Jacana published my book. Both were in recognition of contributions to the struggle against apartheid and to promote democracy.

Insubordinate action
I felt honoured that both universities affirmed insubordinate action and writing at difficult times. But, according to my youngest child, aged about nine at the time, neither doctorate was useful, as I could not use it to write a medical certificate for a day off school.

Despite this, I have been referred to as “Doctor” by newsreaders, before they ask me to explain complex human rights matters, such as the connection between food security and economic policy choices, in two minutes (with no time for the discussion of titles).

At the SAHRC, colleagues in the secretariat do not address commissioners by name. Despite repeated requests to staff to use my name, no one (from my former English student at the University of Durban-Westville, now a provincial manager, to the senior manager of our legal department) will make an exception. The argument is that it is a way to demonstrate respect for me.

Countering that I feel respected without the deference of a title has not dented a deeply entrenched hierarchical culture and practice. So I am called “commissioner” or “deputy chair”, sometimes shortened to DC.

I have received SAHRC business cards with “Dr” before my name. Over time, it is easy to slide into complacency and not “waste time” with constant engagement on titles, to begin to enjoy the accompanying status. None of us is without vanity.

Everything turns to dust
When I made the decision to resign from Parliament (and relinquish the titles of MP, “Committee Chair” and “Honourable Member”), I was supported by family and close friends who did not define me by position or status. The daily reminder of the corpse pose in yoga practice reinforced the fact that everything turns to dust. At the time, this perspective provided the freedom to make principled choices.

Hierarchical culture is deeply entrenched throughout society. Appearing before Parliament on behalf of the SAHRC, I once respectfully referred to an ANC MP by his name as I raised serious human rights concerns. These were clearly not as important as my breach of protocol as I was interrupted and admonished by an opposition MP, who asserted that “he is Honourable MP to you!”

The debates this week can lead to a deeper understanding of the complex challenge of transforming ourselves and our society, beyond merciless, righteous indignation.

We can explore the possibilities of transforming our hierarchical culture into one that affirms our individual and collective dignity and humanity, beyond status, position, wealth or title.

Pregs Govender is deputy chairperson of the SAHRC. She writes this in her personal capacity.

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