Off to Parliament, educated or not

No degree: John Steenhuisen

No degree: John Steenhuisen

As a debate raged this week about the qualifications of MPs, the Mail & Guardian tracked down the educational qualifications of more than half of South Africa’s public representatives and, overall, they are a fairly well-educated group.

But many MPs insisted that educational qualifications are not the key to a seat in Parliament — being a good politician is what counts.

According to the People’s Assembly, a nonprofit group that tracks MPs and seeks to promote accountability, there are a total of 449 representatives. Parliament seats 400 members and the other 49 are permanent members of the National Council of Provinces.

Of those 449, the M&G was able to track down 247 members’ education details, which reflect a fairly educated spectrum of doctors, lawyers and some theologians.

Of the 247 members, 9% have PhDs, and the most popular fields are philosophy (22%) and law (9%).

This week the Democratic Alliance came out in defence of the party’s chief whip, John Steenhuisen, who does not have a tertiary education. The scrutiny began when the Sunday Times reported on a proposal by the KwaZulu-Natal DA legislature that only an MP with a university degree should be considered for the position of chief whip.

On Tuesday in Parliament, during the debate about the National Qualifications Framework Amendment Bill, which would prohibit people from misrepresenting their qualifications, Steenhuisen explained that it didn’t matter what qualifications one had or did not have as a member of the House.
He said he had enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in politics and law but because of financial and work pressure he could not finish, and he was not ashamed.

“The Constitution of the Republic is very clear on who qualifies to be a member of this house … [the] Constitution made it this way so that it didn’t matter whether you are a mine worker or a brain surgeon, you could still participate in our demo-cracy,” he said.

The M&G contacted all DA members — by email, phone calls and text messages — but many refused to provide their qualifications, saying they had never been asked this question.

The DA’s Dennis Ryder said his qualification was that he had been elected by his constituency.

Dirk Stubbe, another DA member, said he would not comment because this has never been done in all the years he had been in Parliament.

“To me you don’t need qualifications to be a politician. You need to be able to think on your feet and know what is happening in life. I know a lot of people from all parties who are good at being politicians and they don’t need qualifications,” he said.

Political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana agreed that politicians are not elected on qualifications, but on the popularity of their party.

“In politics, technical know-how is not a prerequisite. What you need to have is experience and knowledge and sympathise with people you are meant to represent. If they have technical expertise, it’s a bonus, but it is not a prerequisite of a popular democracy. You can have that in an aristocratic democracy where only the rich and the educated qualify for office,” he said.

He added that people were surprised that a white person, Steenhuisen, only has a matriculation certificate. In the private sector, people were not aware that there are many white people who occupy senior positions, but don’t have qualifications.

“That’s where the surprise arises from. There has always been a association [of] white with excellence, which is just not real; it’s just a function of white [privilege],” said Ndletyana.

Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of education, said the Steenhuisen issue has come up because he is a particularly effective whip. “He expresses himself with the confidence and sometimes the haughtiness of the privileged classes. The issue of white male privilege was irrelevant in this debate, but it is relevant in the context of the broader status of our society that, in general, it is true that if you are white or a white male you are privileged.”

Of the 54% of DA members for whom M&G obtained details, all have passed matric. Among ANC MPs, 152 members’ details were obtained and of those, 91% have matric. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)has 30 members, 93% with matric.

The EFF’s Mgcini Tshwaku said he would not respond to a request until the M&G asked Private Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan when he was going to respond to the EFF’s questions. “When are you investigating if Pravin has a bank account in Canada? Please ask Pravin if his daughter is doing business [with] 11 government departments. Can you please do balanced reporting, please! Answer the above first. Just ponder. Are you trying to defend John Steenhuisen since he does not have post-matric qualifications?” he said.

EFF chief whip Floyd Shivambu, who had a spat with Steenhuisen about his lack of tertiary education on Twitter, provided the M&G with qualification details for all the party’s MPs except for one, who was unavailable for personal reasons.

Of the 29 EFF respondents, 10% have PhDs and 13% have a master’s degree in areas such as political science and industrial psychology.

Most MPs have certificates in economics, governance, leadership and public finance. Certificates were also in negotiation skills, gender equity, sports psychology, electronics and project management.

Of the 247 members reached, 54% have bachelor’s degrees. The most popular are BA, BCom and LLB degrees. At least 7% of MPs have second bachelor’s degrees, most commonly in law.

Unisa has produced the most MPs with degrees (18%), followed by Stellenbosch University (8%), the University of Cape Town (6%) and the University of the Witwatersrand (6%).

Ndletyana added that the uproar is misplaced. “We are bringing in our racial stereotypes in a debate where it is not necessary. In a debate about democracy and popular representation mediocrity doesn’t count.”


How the data was obtained

The Mail & Guardian used numerous sources to track down information relating to MPs’ qualifications, including the websites of the People’s Assembly and the ANC Caucus, as well as LinkedIn.

MPs were also contacted through the party chief whips and individually.

Information for 247 (55%) of the 449 members was obtained and is included in this dataset. The complete dataset can be found on the M&G website. Given this sample size, the margin of error has been calculated at 4%.

Many of the MPs who were phoned would not reveal their information, because they said it was private or because they could not verify the identity of the journalist.

The newspaper collected 45% of the ANC members’ information, 61% of the DA members’ and 97% from the EFF.

Other parties are also included in the dataset, and 34% of those members’ information was collected. — M&G Data Desk

The data can be viewed here on Google Sheets. The aim for M&G is to keep this as a living document so information can be updated, clarified and refined accordingly. Readers are free to comment in the document and send an email to jacquesc@mg.co.za and athandiwes@mg.co.za.

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