Melanie Verwoerd: Degrees for MPs? What arrogant nonsense!

There is absolutely no correlation between those who are good and conscientious servants of the people who elected them, and university degrees, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Recently a family member, who I did not think was particularly religious, emailed me the following Bible verse from Proverbs:

There are six things the Lord hates—

no, seven things he detests:

haughty (arrogant) eyes,

a lying tongue,

hands that kill the innocent,

a heart that plots evil,

feet that race to do wrong,

a false witness who pours out lies,

a person who sows discord in a family.

"Doesn't that sound a lot like our politicians?" asked the sender.

Last week we saw a furious debate on the necessity for academic qualifications for members of Parliament. This was sparked by a decision by the DA in KwaZulu-Natal to back a proposal that whips in Parliament should have a post graduate qualification. This seemed clearly aimed at the DA's chief whip in the National Assembly, John Steenhuisen, who has no university degree.

However, it quickly descended into a social media spat between members of the EFF and DA, with the wearers of mine and domestic worker outfits arguing that MPs should have some form of tertiary qualification.

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The issue was quickly picked up by the media as was Steenhuisen's excellent response during a debate in Parliament.

I was totally baffled that this issue was even raised in our country. It smacks of the worst intellectual snobbery and goes against the spirit of the Constitution.

Of course I will never diminish the tremendous value of formal education. I come from an academic family, with both parents having worked and lectured at Stellenbosch University. I have insisted that both my kids get at least a master's degree – the rest is up to them.

My sisters all have multiple degrees as have, of course, my parents. I have three.

However, if there is one thing I know for sure, it is that no number of degrees can make you a good parliamentarian.

I was part of that extraordinary Parliament of 1994. Yes, there were many people who were highly qualified academically, but many were not. I recall one member of Parliament who could not read or write. Yet, she spoke all 11 official languages. She got children and grandchildren to read the paperwork for her – and she was more prepared than 90% of MPs would be today for committee meetings.

Despite my multiple degrees, I knew nothing of the intricacies of Parliament when I was elected. Frankly, until a few years earlier I had known very little about politics in general.

What I had learned about being a good political representative I had learned on the streets of the townships, in the community halls and in the shacks of this country. I was given brilliant training by people who often had no formal education. They might not have passed Standard 5, but they knew political ideology inside out.

More importantly, they understood what was required of good political representatives.

A good representative was someone who was willing to serve (as oppose to govern or rule) those that put them there. It was someone who would be more inclined to listen than talk and someone who would not steal the resources that were meant for those who they were serving. It was someone who went into Parliament not as a career but because they felt a calling to do so.

My fellow parliamentarians and I were vigorously tested against these criteria in regular community report meetings that we felt obligated to have.

Last week's controversy should prompt us to again ask what characteristics and value systems we want to see in our elected representatives as a matter of urgency, since all the political parties are in the process of drawing up their lists of MPs in advance of next year's election.

Over the last two decades the quality of representation in this country has seriously declined. I often visit Parliament to observe committee meetings and National Assembly sessions. At times I want to cry in despair at the level of the debate, or rather, the total lack thereof.

I watch how MPs who have not bothered to read their documents revert to racial stereotypes and insults. I go to meeting after meeting where only a handful of MPs arrive. In chamber I listen to racial insults being hurled by the back benchers of all political parties and I watch how some political parties try consistently to disrupt proceedings.

Let me be clear that there are many MPs who work incredibly hard and take their jobs as representatives of the people very seriously. But many don't – and they don't deserve to be there.

But there is absolutely no correlation between those who are good and conscientious servants of the people who elected them, and university degrees. Instead of debating this arrogant nonsense, we should have another serious look at who we want as members of Parliament.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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