12 Aug 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: The Times
During my brief training four years ago on how to be an ambassador - which, contrary to expectation, did not include instruction into how to hold a knife and fork or how to seat big wigs at the dining table - I did pick up at least one piece of useful advice.
No man is so short as he who stands on his dignity
One of the old-timers at Pretoria's diplomatic academy told me that most of my ambassadorial colleagues were "very short". When I expressed some surprise at this observation, he rejoined: "Yes, no man is so short as he who stands on his dignity", a reminder of how many diplomats obsess more about issues of their status than matters of substance.
And then he added a useful reminder: "Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." There is, for example, the rather ridiculous, but harmless, local and overseas habit of keeping the title "Ambassador" long after your diplomatic service ends, a practice that certain of my former colleagues from the world of diplomacy apparently cling to with cuticle-like intensity well into retirement.
I reminded my instructor that I had spent more than two decades in parliament and politics. This is an ecosystem where bowing and scraping before the titled classes of "Minister" and "Premier" and dozens of others lower down the political food chain, but blessed with some or other appellation, is now so hard-wired into the national dialogue, and even into everyday conversation, that this new world held no terrors for me in the matter of ritualised protocol.
Political titles are as suddenly conferred as they are removed and the waters pass over quickly enough as once-titled office-holders learn another lesson: there is nothing as ex as an ex. But those whose hard study and intellectual excellence entitle them to use the prefix "Doctor" have a longer shelf-life, indeed life-long entitlement, in the titled world of status enhancement.
An academic or medical doctorate is the high-water mark of intellectual attainment and its title-holders are regarded, sometimes incorrectly it is true, as possessors of great wisdom or achievement.
But this is not really the context of either the controversy or the reaction to the apparent lack of entitlement of the titled "Dr" Pallo Jordan. Since the revelation in the Sunday Times about 10 days ago that the honourable member of parliament and the former minister had apparently neither a postgraduate nor any certified degrees at all, South Africa has been treated to the familiar three-card trick. Traditionally, this is the sleight of hand practised by card sharps, who induce a gullible "mark" to part with his money by misdirecting him in the search for the queen.
So the essence of the disclosure about Jordan had nothing do with his intelligence, his intellect or his contribution to the struggle. It had everything to do with claims he made to a title he was, on the face of it, not entitled to use, and which has been his calling card on all official documentation and in every debate in which the voluble politician has featured.
Instead of dealing with the merits of this matter, essentially one of fraud or wrongful misstatement, the public has been treated to the South African equivalent of the three-card trick. The first card is to change the conversation and there was no shortage of players here.
Appropriate to his first name, Baby Tyawa, acting secretary of parliament, offered this childish rejoinder: "Parliament does not make requirements for members to have a degree or PhD."
This spectacular illogicality is simply an evasion. Parliament does, believe it or not, require its members to be "honourable" and presumably the inquiry about Jordan was triggered by concerns of dishonourable conduct.
Then the academic cavalcade rode into support. Former ANC politician and now academic head of the Wits School of Education Mary Metcalfe dismissed the brouhaha on the basis that "Pallo's intellectual contribution and standing is leap years ahead of many PhD holders in this country". This novel card has endless possibilities, not least for doctoral students under Aunty Mary's care.
But, as The Times editorialised this week, the most notable comment of all has been the non-comment of the man at the centre of it all. Jordan appears not to feel the obligation to offer any explanation at all.
The third card then is the impunity card, very familiar to our local audience: deeds have no consequences.
Last week, in the US, senator John Walsh of Montana was forced to quit his senate race not because he did not have the PhD he claimed, but because it was revealed that he plagiarised substantial portions of it.
Perhaps he should immigrate here, and resume his political career in the land of no consequences.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA