'Dr' Pallo Jordan: Why I did it

Johannesburg - Pallo Jordan is considering a lengthy retreat from public life following the furore triggered by the revelation that he possesses neither a doctorate nor a university degree, City Press reports.

This week the former Cabinet minister told City Press: “Now, maybe, I should retire from public life and sit it out.”

In the exclusive interview, Jordan spoke matter-of-factly of the tragic circumstances in which he was first referred to as Dr Jordan.

That was in 1982, in a report about the letter bomb that killed the academic and journalist Ruth First in Maputo. It appeared in the authoritative newsletter Africa Confidential and noted that “social scientist Dr Pallo Jordan” was also injured in the blast.

“I didn’t dispute it,” Jordan said this week. And the belief that he had a doctorate “developed a momentum of its own”.

Jordan admitted he was only ever registered at one university, the University of Wisconsin (UW) in the US. But he attended lectures at three others, including the University of Cape Town (UCT).

While there is no record of him at UCT, he in effect studied there for two years. His father, AC Jordan, was UCT’s first black professor.

Professor Michael Savage, retired former professor of sociology, confirmed: “He couldn’t register because of the apartheid regulations, but as students we used to attend some of the same lectures.”

Jordan said: “I attended lectures in English, history, comparative law and African government, as well as my father’s isiXhosa classes.”

In 1963, when his father took up a post at UW, his family followed and Jordan registered there for a degree in history.

However, the authorities in the US refused to renew his student visa because of his involvement in anti-Vietnam War protests and after three years there, and without a degree, he left for London in April 1967.

“I applied to Sussex University and a few others, but didn’t get accepted,” he said. However, exiles in London were experiencing a period of political ferment and, like many young radicals, Jordan would “drop in” over the years on specific lectures and seminars at the London School of Economics (LSE) and London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas).

It was much the same as he had done in Cape Town. “If you sit down in a lecture, nobody’s going to question you or throw you out,” he said.

South African exiles

Jordan and a number of other young members of the newly formed ANC Youth were influenced by the ideas of Mao Zedong and saw themselves as “activists among the masses” who disparaged “ivory towers”.

“I wouldn’t say we were anti-academic, but we saw ourselves as being part of, and serving, the people,” Jordan said this week. Practical experience “with the people” was what mattered, which was perhaps part of the reason he did not return to university.

Jordan worked as a clerk for the Abbey Life insurance company established by exiled South African lawyer Joel Joffe (now a British peer, Baron Joffe). His company provided work for South African exiles.

Jordan also “did odd jobs” in London until the 1976 student uprising in South Africa boosted the fortunes of the ANC. He then began working full time for the movement and, the following year, was sent to Angola to head Radio Freedom.

“We transformed it from being something like the BBC into a virtual public meeting,” he said.

Internal ANC politics saw him removed from Radio Freedom and transferred first to Lusaka and then Maputo as head of research. He held this post from 1979 to 1988, building up the ANC reference library and working with Ruth First in the Centre for Southern African Studies at Eduardo Mondlane University.

He was across the desk from First when she opened a letter bomb on 17 August 1982. She died instantly. Jordan suffered permanent deafness in one ear, his eyesight saved only by the wraparound dark glasses he habitually wore.

After this “near-death experience” he was transferred to Lusaka where, less than a year later, he fell foul of the ANC’s security agency, Mbokodo. He was arrested, held in what he describes as a “hokkie, a sort of chicken run outside Lusaka” and interrogated for six weeks.

“I had criticised the methods they used and they came to get me.”

He was released only after several senior ANC members heard of his incarceration and petitioned party president OR Tambo.

“The near-death experience in Maputo [followed by] this near-oblivion shook me a great deal,” he said. “It showed how fragile life is.”

Accepting the Doctor title

Aware not only of the fragility of life but also of the “reefs and shoals that can cause you to run aground”, he “made a pact with my conscience” that included the acceptance of the title Doctor.

“It opens various doors, not in terms of making money, but in terms of your opinions being weighed and considered worthwhile,” he said.

It also gave access to people “one did not normally have access to”. And “Dr Jordan” was rarely questioned about where his doctorate came from.

He recalls only one occasion, in 1986, when American academic Thomas Karis posed the question. With a grin, Jordan said: “Africa Confidential bestowed it on me.”

It was seen as a joke and never followed up.

But the basis of his “Faustian pact” — the idea of selling his soul to the devil for the promise of happiness — was that he would work where he found himself in the hope of achieving “freedom”.

“That was my first objective. If I could at least get there, I could be happy.”

He saw — and still sees — the ANC as the only way to achieve freedom. It is “a fool’s errand” to act outside of the party and in opposition to it.

“We have had a lot of experience of erudite revolutionaries in search of a movement. Whatever its faults, [the ANC] was the only instrument to make it as far as we did.”

Jordan was criticised for “going public” in support of media freedom and his opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill. “But [the criticism] was through an ANC journal and to remind the ANC of its own heritage.”

Though critical of many ANC practices, Jordan maintains the party’s policies should not be repudiated. He said he remained a loyal member and tendered his resignation from Parliament and party structures when his doctorate was shown to be nonexistent.

“I tried to save the movement embarrassment.” He said he felt “obvious regret at having misled a lot of people: colleagues, co-workers and the public”.

However, “on balance”, he still felt what he did was worthwhile: “I have fought for the objective of freedom and worked for reconstruction.”

Now, he said, Mephistopheles (the devil) had come for his soul. He had hoped that a biographer might one day play that role. But it had come “sooner than I had hoped”, forced by a journalist who discovered the anomalies in his CV.

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