TO Molefe

Understanding is the only way to combat fraudulent qualifications

2014-08-18 12:17

TO Molefe

A week ago I suffered the ignominy of being quoted out of context. A lazy someone at Politicsweb created a copy-and-paste news article by lifting a paragraph from a Facebook post I'd written about Pallo Jordan's qualifications scandal and stitching it together with other people's Facebook posts. As they did so, they failed at basic reading comprehension. They misrepresented my position as a defence of Jordan when it actually was an attempt to explain why people would fake their qualifications.

I of course realise the futility of saying I was quoted out of context. That claim has been so tarnished by the spin doctors of politicians, business people and celebrities that even I roll my eyes a little when I hear someone say it. A plea for context is now often a tool of linguistic subterfuge used by those trying to avoid responsibility for the things they've said.

Perhaps the best response in such situations is to surrender to the reader, as so many of my favourite writers do. But that's not a lesson I'm prepared to learn. At least not in this instance. Because many of the editorials accompanying this recent resurgence in exposés of fraudulent qualifications at public institutions appear to be unable to explain what causes people to fake their credentials. That is precisely what my wildly misinterpreted post was attempting to do.

A nation of fakers?

It's hard to tell how bad the fake qualification problem in South Africa is. The many agencies that make money off of vetting qualifications have, for obvious reasons, tried to play it up for years as wide spread and systemic. In the past few months alone it seems few public institutions have been spared. Parliament, the office of the premier of the North West, Sanral, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the SABC board and executive, the National Prosecuting Authority - all have been scandalised by allegations of senior people with fake qualifications.

Needless to say, there appears enough to fill the Sunday pages for some time to come. This is probably why investigative journalists around the country seem to have taken it upon themselves to conduct an audit of qualifications at publicly funded institutions. As they do so, they collectively present a skewed picture of the situation by focusing only on public institutions. But the worst of it is that they present each instance of fake qualifications as wholly caused by that individual's personal failings. This is incorrect and unhelpful.

The fraud triangle

There's a concept in auditing known as the fraud triangle. The concept originates in criminology and provides a neat way to understand that fraud is a problem caused by both individual and environmental factors. The triangle's sides are made up of three elements: opportunity, incentive and justification. For fraud to occur, each interrelated side of the triangle has to be in place.

From the sounds of it, Jordan was presented with an opportunity to misstate, or at least allow his qualifications to be misstated, when, according to Beeld, a British publication incorrectly wrote that he had a doctorate. His personal incentive for not correcting the misstatement we won't know until he gives his version. But we do know that our society places a value on qualifications. We use them as an indicator of ability and intelligence. Often, they are used as the only indicator despite there existing other indicators of a person's ability and intelligence.

EFF leader Julius Malema and President Jacob Zuma are classic examples of this. Both are highly accomplished politicians who have objectively demonstrated remarkable savvy and ability throughout their careers. But, despite this, much is made of their supposed lack of intelligence only because Malema performed poorly in high school and Zuma did not finish high school.

Understanding isn't excusing

We also won't know how Jordan or anyone else justified the lies about their qualifications until they explain. But again this, too, is a mix of personal and social factors. Our society is one that systematically excludes people from access to formal qualifications, despite the inordinately high value we place on formal education. And without formal education, people are then systematically excluded from intellectual and economic participation. In such an environment, people who know that a piece of paper, or lack thereof, says little about their worth might feel lying about their qualifications is justified.

I suspect, too, that given the other misdeeds running amuck unchecked in the highest levels of business, the government and personal lives, those who lie about their qualifications might also convince themselves that their transgressions are minor. There is an auditing concept for this, too. It's called tone at the top. It suggests that the lack of accountability for major transgressions among senior figures creates an environment where everybody else feels justified in explaining away their minor transgressions.

To be clear, this does not mean I'm saying fake qualifications should be excused; only that the phenomenon is not inexplicable, as many editorials have declared. Not only is it understandable, it's existence was predictable. It's only with this understanding will we be able to do something about the fake qualifications phenomenon.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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