Qualified or capable? There’s a difference

2014-08-19 13:45

A graph showing “South African presidents’ qualifications” since 1989 made the rounds last week.

FW de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were all shown to hold postgraduate/master’s degrees, Kgalema Motlanthe a matric, and Jacob Zuma “none”.

The graph offered no context, no interpretation of “data”, but its subtext was clear: South Africa has the least “qualified” president in more than 20 years.

The graph also failed to indicate the circumstances under which each of these men would have received their education.

Zuma’s “lack of education” comes up often, usually when criticising him.

Recently, I saw it being used when the news broke that former MP Pallo Jordan was not a qualified doctor.

The implication here was that being a man who did not have a matric, but served as president, was the same as a man who had been caught in a lie.

Someone then rightly pointed out that, as far as we know, Zuma had never lied about his education, so the comparison was nonsensical.

The truth is, when we talk about “qualified”, we still don’t know what we mean.

This was obvious in the narrative surrounding (then acting) SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s fraudulent CV.

The dominant narrative was unable to separate the criminality of the matter with the other conversation about a chief operating officer of the SABC not having a matric, which falls into a broader conversation about the measure of capability in South Africa.

We have yet to discuss these things clearly and as separate (but often related) issues largely because, for the most part, we continue to hold formal education as the single most reliable indicator and assurance of capability and skill.

This is interesting for a country that has a surplus of formally educated people (there are an estimated 344?000 unemployed South Africans with degrees, diplomas and certificates) and a simultaneous deskilling of the majority of the people who are unable to progress through the education system.

When Thuthukile Zuma was appointed chief of staff in the department of telecommunications, we almost had the conversation where despite her holding the correct qualification, her experience was lacking.

This raised critical questions about the value of experience, which can often be as good as a degree. The broader question of the dodgy recruitment process was also lost in the easier conversation about “Zuma’s ­25-year-old daughter”.

In this context, we find ourselves unable to truly distinguish between “not formally educated” and “not qualified/competent” because we have yet to realise that these two things are not the same, but also separate from the falsification of credentials.

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