It might seem like a rather trivial scandal – something easily overlooked at a time when South Africa is mourning the violent death of its national football team captain and the credit rating agencies are circling overhead, poised to issue more warnings about the country’s struggling economy.
But the mystery surrounding Ellen Tshabalala’s academic qualifications demands attention.
It is an issue that seems to have divided South Africa.
To some it is a story that reveals nothing more than the enduring legacy of apartheid. To others it is a very modern outrage that exposes the shamelessness now infesting South Africa’s democratic institutions.
Tshabalala is the chairperson of South Africa’s national broadcaster, the SABC, and for months she has been declining – with varying degrees of indignation and legal casuistry – to answer MPs who want to know if, as they allege, she lied about the impressive university qualifications she claims to have earned.
Tshabalala is in good company.
The SABC’s chief executive, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, has also been accused of lying about his qualifications on his official CV.
And then there is the case of Pallo Jordan, a prominent ANC stalwart and public intellectual, who recently admitted that he had never earned the doctorate that always seemed to attach itself so confidently to his name. And there are others…
So what? Plenty of South Africans point back to the racist apartheid system and the demands of the liberation struggle, which denied generations of black people a decent education and access to the necessary opportunities and qualifications to thrive.
If some of them are now forced to tweak their CVs in order to meet some abstract job requirements, then surely the system itself is at fault.
“We need a change of attitude, to get rid of this rather inappropriate elitism… and to distinguish between a lack of qualifications and a lack of ability,” says Stephen Friedman, a prominent political analyst whose own doctorate is “just a piece of paper that people take much too seriously here”.
In the case of Pallo Jordan, the consensus seems to be that he made a foolish, sustained, but ultimately pardonable error of judgment.
But the situation at South Africa’s national broadcaster has provoked far less sympathy, amid allegations that President Jacob Zuma is protecting his allies at the expense of due process.
‘No sense of shame’
“They lied about it. If you’re politically connected you can get away with it,” fumed another political commentator, Justice Malala.
“You have these two who are seen as defenders of President Zuma at the SABC, which makes them virtually untouchable.”
The high-handed manner in which Ms Tshabalala has rebuffed parliament’s enquiries about her qualifications has led many South Africans to believe she must have political “cover” at the highest levels.
“For me what the Zuma administration has allowed is for people to lose their sense of shame – that this is the right thing to do,” said Mr Malala
“The lines between right and wrong are becoming blurred. They can just tough it out,” he added, citing the chairperson of the national carrier SAA, as another alleged beneficiary of presidential protection.
And before long, what starts with seemingly minor disputes about qualifications soon expands into a broader theory about Jacob Zuma’s own legal battles, the controversial manner in which corruption charges against him were dropped before he became president, the exorbitant taxpayer-funded refurbishments to his private Nkandla home, and the growing belief that some of South Africa’s most important institutions – not the least the prosecutor’s office – are being stretched and bent out of shape in order to protect Mr Zuma.