Democratic Alliance Chief Whip John Steenhuisen’s academic record has evoked debates which must be disentangled. First, this is not about fake qualifications. Second, you don’t need a university degree in order to be an effective politician. Neither the law nor any political party rules require public representatives to be graduates.
Indeed, Julius Malema had not achieved his first degree when he founded the EFF in 2013. He was scorned for a poor matric. By contrast, apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was a high-achieving scholar before entering politics. He was appointed professor of applied psychology at Stellenbosch aged 26.
Long before that, Jan Smuts achieved spectacular results in his law finals at Cambridge, where he turned down a professorship before becoming SA’s prime minister (twice) and serving in Winston Churchill’s war Cabinet.
Churchill, on the other hand, could not go to university because his school results were poor. He struggled to pass Sandhurst Royal Military College entrance exams, scraping through on the third attempt. Yet he went on to lead wartime Britain and win the Nobel prize for literature.
Although US President Donald Trump graduated from Ivy League Wharton Business School, few credit him with academic prowess. Yet those who regard him as stupid cannot ignore some political success.
Robert Mugabe had seven degrees before he became prime minister. He ruined Zimbabwe. Former president Jacob Zuma lacks formal education but won two elections. These and other examples suggest little correlation between academic qualifications and political careers.
A person can be well educated without having a degree. Steenhuisen is such a person. His command of parliamentary rules, and his quick-wittedness on the floor, are unparalleled in the House. He is a Master of Arts (MA) in parliament.
No sensible party will make university education a compulsory requirement for elected public office. Such a rule would exclude millions who have ability but have been deprived of formal education opportunities.
Cynical observations about academics abound. Mark Twain: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Einstein: “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”. Local professor Jonathan Jansen tweeted: “I prefer a politician with an education rather than one with a degree”. Nice distinction.
My cynicism about university degrees evolved over decades in journalism, where graduates routinely underperform in comparison with those who learn on the job.
Bill Gates, Harvard’s most successful dropout, exemplifies degreeless excellence. However, we should not be too sceptical about formal education. With the right attitude, and if we don’t allow our brains to be dulled, we can learn much at university.
Enthusiasm and commitment are key. Without them degrees can be worthless. Honourable Steenhuisen has these qualities in abundance. If honorary degrees were taken more seriously, he should be awarded plenty.
- Williams has an honours (not honorary) degree in politics (UKZN) and a higher certificate in municipal governance (UJ).