Grey goatee, wrinkles of age lining his brow, pink shirt, black tie, a proud smile: this is Emmanuel Gasa at the age of 75 as the High Court admits him as an attorney following a struggle for more than a decade to complete the required degrees and professional credentials.
It makes for an inspirational story of determination and resilience. However, in stark contrast the ambassador to Italy, Shirish Soni, recently was recalled for misrepresenting his academic qualification, among others.
The development makes for a discouraging story that has become all too familiar, often and most prominently in the case of public officials. Reports on credentials gained through struggle, as in the case of Gasa, and on fabricated credentials, such as in the case of Soni, are indicative of how society responds to, and the underlying social dynamics relating to, such incidents.
Public responses to both inspirational and discouraging stories follow a similar dynamic, namely to individualise the story.
When someone overcomes vast obstacles to achieve, people consider it an individual success. Similarly, when someone fails terribly the case is considered an indicator of individual negligence.
This leads to the social processes of either “herofication” or “scapegoating”. The media makes heroes of individuals who inspire citizens and communities to reach for their dreams and transform their lives and environments – herofication argues that when one can achieve it, then many could.
In contrast, scapegoating argues that when one fails, then he or she is an exception to the rule of the daily lives of ethical conduct of everyone else – in public and the media society makes villains of individuals to absolve itself from being complicit in what went wrong.
Herofication and scapegoating maintains the myth that success and failure are individual matters, which discounts the intricacies of how individual behaviours flow from and respond to groups and social, cultural and political structures. In reality, a multitude of social interactions, relationships, hidden meanings and overt agreements in formal and informal environments enable successes and failures.
A social tension between individual agency and group moderation underlies the myth – people behave according to their own views of the world and values, but at the same time in relation to, and moderated by, what their community considers sound and socially acceptable perspectives and conduct.
This means that public responses to academic achievement and misrepresented credentials must reflect on both individual conduct and the socio-cultural and group dynamics that mediate incidents of success or failure over time. Incidents of qualification fraud draw on a particular form of the moderating effect of groups, namely the social dynamics of “credentialism” – this refers to the widely held perspective that academic qualifications provide the only legitimate credentials with which to consider a candidate, since formal qualifications represent a complete verification of the knowledge, skills and capabilities of an individual.
This dynamic is a process of “social selection” that determines access to opportunities to progress in life, and to exclusive membership of communities that people aspire to join.
Since social selection determines access for some and not others, credentialism strengthens social hierarchies. The longer struggle for success often leaves one stranded outside, while the perceived short cut of fabrication promises immediate membership.
What the story of Gasa reveals is that the one may lead the many, the individual may direct the group, to cut through hero worship and vilification simply by taking the long road.
- Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.
- Originally published in the Cape Argus on Thursday, 16 January 2020.