Malaika Mahlatsi23 April 2024 | 8:45

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Why are bogus honorary degrees and colleges on the rise?

Given obvious hallmarks of a fly-by-night institution, why, then, did Sello Maake kaNcube - an MA degree holder - find himself at the centre of a bogus honorary degree scandal? The simple explanation is the growing obsession with titles in South Africa, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Why are bogus honorary degrees and colleges on the rise?

Actor Sello Maake kaNcube (right) gets his honorary doctorate from the Trinity International Bible University. Picture: @sellomkn/X

This past weekend, social media exploded with news that veteran actor Sello Maake kaNcube had been conferred with an honorary doctorate by Trinity International Bible University.

The said institution, which has previously conferred honorary doctorates on other artists including musician Winnie Mashaba, and Skeem Saam actor Elizabeth Serunye, is not registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), and is therefore not legally authorised to offer any qualifications, including honorary degrees.

The institution does not have a website with detailed information about its physical location or any other verifiable information. Its Facebook page was last active in August 2022, and its content is largely comprised of religious quotes and graduation photos of various individuals – all of whom were seemingly conferred with honorary doctorates.

Posts on the page indicate that correspondence with the institution is done via a Gmail account rather than an institutional one. These obvious hallmarks of a fly-by-night institution are clear to a layman, and should have certainly been clear to Maake kaNcube, who holds a Master of Arts degree from the reputable Leeds Beckett University in England.

Why, then, did a man who is conversant on higher education processes find himself at the centre of a bogus honorary degree scandal?

The simple explanation is that there is a growing obsession with titles in South Africa. This is demonstrated by the disturbing practice of falsifying qualifications.

In recent months, there have been numerous highly publicised cases of individuals who lied about their qualifications.

These include disgraced economist and former member of the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, Thabi Leoka, who lied about having a doctorate from the London School of Economics; Matthew Lani, who lied about having a medical degree from Wits University and went on to do rounds at public hospitals and sell pharmaceutical products online; and Langelezwe Madonko, the co-founder of a prominent investment firm, who lied about a range of qualifications including a degree from the London School of Economics.

There are many others – some of whom are yet to be caught.

Individuals who lie about qualifications are not only unethical, but they are also engaging in criminal action. The National Qualifications Framework Amendment Act of 2019 makes it clear that the misrepresentation and falsification of qualifications is a prosecutable offence.

And yet, the problem persists, confirming the view that there is an obsession with titles in our country, with people willing to risk prosecution to be seen to have them.

But this explanation is inadequate. Other factors beg for critical engagement.

The first is the growing number of unregistered institutions in our country. Just a month ago, the Department of Higher Education announced the de-registration of four institutions – Damelin, City Varsity, Lyceum College and Icesa City Campus, all of which are under Education Investment Corporation Limited (Educor). According to DHET, the said institutions are dysfunctional.

Over the years, several unregistered institutions have been shut down by the government, but more keep mushrooming, especially in major cities like Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria).

At the heart of the problem is that there are simply not enough public universities in South Africa, and the African continent in general. Consider that the top 10 most populous countries in Africa have a combined population of just over 665 million people, but are served by only 740 universities.

Contrast this with developed countries like the United States, where there are roughly 5,300 universities and colleges serving a population of just over 325 million people; or Germany, where there are 423 universities and colleges serving a population of 83.28 million.

In contrast, South Africa, with a population of 60.89 million people, has just 26 public universities, 50 technical, vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, and 149 private colleges registered with DHET. This translates to a population per capita served by a higher learning institution at just over 390,000 people.

With an average of roughly a million pupils sitting for matric exams annually, the implication is that there aren’t enough places in higher learning institutions to accommodate all those seeking to further their studies. In a South Africa where education outcomes are linked to employment, this is fertile ground for the emergence of fly-by-night institutions such as Trinity International Bible University.

The second point that begs for engagement is linked to the first, and it is the inadequate oversight of private actors in the higher education sector.

This is compounded by the weakness of the criminal justice system. While DHET has had some notable success in cracking down on unlicenced institutions, they continue to mushroom all over the country. Some of the institutions that are flagged for non-compliance continue to operate with ease. This is evident in the case of Trinity International Bible University, which has been providing bogus honorary degrees for several years.

Part of the reason that this is happening is that there are no significant consequences for the individuals and companies that are engaged in the running of bogus colleges. When the DHET suspects that a college is bogus, it investigates the institution. If evidence of illegitimacy is found, a letter of warning is issued, following which, the case is referred to the South African Police Service (SAPS). But it appears that somewhere between SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), these cases are lost.

For example, in 2021, DHET identified 89 bogus colleges in the country and filed cases against all of them with SAPS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. And yet, there has been little movement in terms of arrests.

There is a sense that the police do not treat such cases with the seriousness that they demand. This is evident in cases such as that of Salome Ngwana, who ran numerous unregistered colleges in Botlokwa, Morebeng and the Vhembe district of Limpopo. While her case was opened back in 2017, she managed to evade law enforcement for six years, during which time she managed to successfully run a business with a dozen employees while maintaining residency in Johannesburg. 

A final point that must be pondered on is the little value that South Africa places on the creative sector.

There is no question that Maake kaNcube is an exceptional artist – on the screen and in theatre. The renowned thespian, whose work spans decades, has made a significant contribution to the development of the arts in our country. If anyone is worthy of an honorary degree, which is awarded to a person who has shown exceptional merit or has made exceptional contributions in a discipline, it is he.

And yet, Maake kaNcube, like many other great thespians, has not been recognised for his contributions by any reputable institution.

It is my opinion that creatives in particular are often overlooked for such great honours. There is a sense that honour is deserved mainly by political activists. This is evidenced in the disproportionate representation that they enjoy in naming processes.

Most streets and public installations in our country are named after political activists. While this is not inherently wrong, the problem is that it leaves out men, women and non-binary people who have made significant contributions and left an indelible mark in other fields, particularly the arts and sports.

We are a country that does not place value on our cultural heritage. Even our renowned icons such as Mama Esther Mahlangu, who received the Order of Ikhamanga in silver back in 2006, has only very recently started being conferred honorary doctorates, with the first being conferred in 2018 by the University of Johannesburg.

This was done exactly 30 years after she was first thrust onto the international stage at the French art exposition, Magiciens de la terre, in 1989.

She went on to exhibit all over the world, and to have the rare honour of being commissioned by various brands including German car manufacturing giant, BMW, which commissioned her to create an art car back in 1991. The rest of the world was honouring and celebrating her long before South African learning institutions caught on – and this is the case with many creatives and cultural icons.

This low value that we place on creative work must be reflected upon. Calling out artists who accept bogus honorary degrees is the easy part.

Let’s now do the difficult part – reflecting on how we treat creatives and on the complicity of various stakeholders, including the state, in enabling bogus institutions to exist and thrive.

Malaika is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She is a PhD in Geography candidate at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.