Intellectuals, the academy and Pallo Jordan

Posted on August 26, 2014


Pallo Jordan, former minister in two ANC governments and regarded as perhaps the leading intellectual in South Africa’s governing party, has habitually been referred to as Dr Jordan. And when a Sunday nespaper reveald that he did not possess a doctorate or any university degree, Jordan resigned from parliament and tendered his resignation from the ANC and the party’s executive. He then disappeared from sight and maintained silence until he spoke to me. This is his story.

In 1982, in a report about the letter bomb that had killed the academic and journalist Ruth First in Maputo, the authoritative newsletter, Africa Confidential noted that the “social scientist Dr Pallo Jordan” had also been injured in the blast. “I didn’t dispute it,” Jordan said in an exclusive interview. And the fact that he had been accorded a doctorate eventually “developed a momentum of its own”.

He also admitted that he was only ever registered at one university, the University of Wisconsin (UW) in the United States. But he attended lectures at three other universities, including the University of Cape Town (UCT),

While the Sunday newspaper made much play of the fact that there is no record of him at UCT, he was effectively a student there for two years. This was at a time when his father, Professor A. C. Jordan, was the first black academic at that univesity.

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

“I attended lectures in English, history, comparative law and African government as well as my father’s isiXhosa classes,” Jordan noted. He had also broken with the Unity Movement political tradition of his academic parents and joined the ANC and SA Communist Party influenced Modern Youth Society.

In 1963, when A. C. Jordan took up a post at the UW, his family followed and Pallo registered at UW for a degree in history. It was, in his words, “a very educative experience”, especially since UW was one of the centres of resistance to the Vietnam war.

But involvement in anti-war protests resulted in the authorities refusing to renew his student visa. After three years at UW, and before completing his degree, he left for London in April 1967. It was in the middle of the British academic year.

“I applied to Sussex University and a few others, but didn’t get accepted,” he said. However, London at the time was a ferment of exile politics and like many young radicals, he 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.

But he and a number of other young members of the then newly formed ANC Youth were also influenced by the ideas of Mao ze Dong. As such, they tended to see themselves as “activists among the masses” and disparaged “ivory towers”.

“Academic means separate from the demos or people,” Jordan noted. “I wouldn’t say we were anti-academic, but we saw ourselves as being part of, and serving, the people.” Practical experience “with the people” was what mattered.

He admitted this was perhaps part of the reason why he did not return to university. But the situation was “more complex”; it might also partly have been a reaction to his parents and the academic orientation of Unity Movement.

So Jordan worked as a clerk for the Abbey Life insurance company established by exiled South African lawyer Joel Joffe — now Baron Joffe — and which provided work for South African exiles. He also “did odd jobs” in London until the 1976 student uprising boosted the fortunes of the ANC. He then started working full time for the movement and, in 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.”

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

He was across the desk from First when she opened a letter bomb on August 17, 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 used by security and they came to get me.” He was only released after several senior members of the ANC, hearing of his incarceration, petitioned ANC president O.R. Tambo.

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

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 acceptance of the title, Dr. “It opens various doors, not in terms of making money, but in terms of your opinions being weighed and considered worthwhile.”

He added that it also gave access to people “one did not normally have access to”. And “Dr Jordan” was rarely questioned about where he had obtained his doctorate. He recalls only one occasion, in 1986, when American academic, Thomas Karis, posed the question.

With a grin, Jordan said that “Africa Confidential bestowed it on me”. It was seen as a joke and never followed up.

But the basis of his “Faustian pact”, he said, was that he would work in the hope of achieving “freedom”.

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

The ANC he saw — and still sees — as the only way to achieve “freedom”. It is “a fool’s errand” to act outside of the ANC and in opposition to it. “We have had a lot of experience of erudite revolutionaries in search of a movement,” he said.

“Whatever its faults [the ANC] was the only instrument to make it as far as we did.” Criticism of the movement, he maintained, must be kept within its ranks. “You only take matters outside when there is a crunch point.”

He had, for example, been wrongly criticised for “going public” in support of media freedom and in opposition to the Protection of State Information Bill that still awaits the signature of the president. “But [the criticism] was through an ANC journal and to remind the ANC of its own heritage.”

Although critical of many of the practices in the ANC, he maintained that it was the policies [of the movement] that should not be repudiated. As such, he remained a loyal member and had tendered his resignation from parliament and the structures of the ANC when his doctorate was shown to be non-existent.

“I tried to save the movement embarrassment,” he said. But he felt “obvious regret at having misled a lot of people: colleagues, co-workers and the public”. However, “on balance” he still felt that what he had done was worthwhile: “I have fought for the objective of freedom and worked for reconstruction.”

Now Mestophilese (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 had discovered the anomalies in his cv.

“Now maybe I should retire from public life and sit it out,” he said, ending the interview.
For those who may be wondering why Pallo Jordan chose to break his silence and speak to me, I should perhaps explain our relationship:

I met Pallo Jordan when he arrived in London in 1967. He was something of a celebrity among we young exiles, having been, as we saw it, expelled from the United States for protesting against the Vietnam war. We too were not only against the war, we were positively in favour of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of Vietnam.

And so it was that Pallo, my partner Barbara and I joined the annual Easter Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) peace march from Aldermaston to London that year, carrying the ANC banner. It was a three-day march and on the third day, as we moved into London, and as Pallo predicted, the rest of the ANC Youth contingent joined us to be featured on local news reels marching up to Trafalgar Square wearing headbands proclaiming: Amandla NLF.

Those were heady days of protest and debate — and of frustration at being stuck in London. Pallo was the epitome of the cool dude, complete with the first pair of wraparound sunglasses we had ever seen. We became friends although we disagreed politically.

I was the first to leave, with Barbara, to head back to the “frontline” and to work in Zambia. It would be more than 20 years before Pallo and I met again, this time as returned exiles. I found him much more withdrawn, but always ready to take on a debate. And there was no denying his sharp mind. So debate we did because, once again, we disagreed politically.