Mohau Pheko. Picture: SUPPLIED

Mohau Pheko says she did the work but didn't get the 'final award'. Picture: SUPPLIED

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SA’S AMBASSADOR to Japan has for years been presenting herself as the holder of a doctorate, which she is not, with the knowledge of government. She is one of several SA public officials recently found to have been falsely claiming certain academic qualifications.

Mohau Pheko, who was appointed to the post in 2012, lists a PhD in international relations from LaSalle University in Louisiana in the US among her academic achievements.

Yet LaSalle did not exist in 2000, when Pheko claims she was awarded the degree. Nor was it a bona fide institution at any time.

LaSalle was shut down in 1996 when it emerged it was a “diploma mill”, selling degrees and other academic qualifications via the Internet “for the bargain price of US$2 000 to $3 700”, according to records at the time.

The authenticity of Pheko’s CV was initially flagged by the Canadian government in 2010 when she was appointed by President Jacob Zuma as the new ambassador-designate to that country.

According to the Vienna convention that frames diplomatic relations, the onus is on the receiving country to vet the incoming diplomat and five years ago the Canadians were quick to spot the glaring anomaly on her CV, as the LaSalle scandal had been well documented across North America by then.

The saga began in 1986 when a colourful individual by the name of Thomas Kirk opened LaSalle University in Mandeville, Louisiana, offering online degree courses for small fees for little or no academic input in return. However, in the 1990s it fell under the spotlight when a string of US government officials began to pad their CVs with LaSalle qualifications.

At one stage, the so-called university had 15 000 students on its books, co-ordinated by only a handful of staff, not all of them adequately qualified.

By the time the FBI shut it down in 1996, it had issued more than 40 000 fake diplomas, for which Kirk had raked in more than $36m. He was charged with fraud and tax evasion but on a guilty plea served just five years in prison.

When the Canadians realised they were dealing with a LaSalle graduate, they flagged the matter immediately, both with Pheko and officials in Pretoria, and she was forced to resubmit a more realistic resumé, which she did and which facilitated her passage to Ottawa. Once there, however, she was apparently “frozen out”, according to one source, and in 2011 she returned to Pretoria.

The Canadians did not want to spark a diplomatic spat and quietly put the matter to rest. When contacted this week they stuck to the official line: “The process for agreement of foreign heads of missions to Canada is confidential and we do not comment on it.”

However, a year later, Pheko was posted to Japan, where she has been ever since and where she introduces herself as “Dr Pheko” and continues to present the controversial doctorate on her CV. To date, the Japanese authorities do not appear to have taken issue with the fact.

When confronted by the Financial Mail last week, Pheko claimed that “many from LaSalle University continue to use PhD titles because the normal course of work was done”. Yet she acknowledges in the same e-mail that “a final award” was never made in her case. She refused to say why she claims to be the holder of a doctorate when she is not.

Why government and the department of international relations & co-operation (Dirco) have refused to take action on the matter is not clear.

According to spokesman Clayson Monyela, “all our diplomats are vetted before any diplomatic posting”, yet when the Canadians raised the matter five years ago, no action was taken.

Pheko was already laden with baggage at that time, however. Prior to joining the diplomatic corps, she was a columnist with the Sunday Times but was dismissed in 2008 for plagiarising not once but several times.

Yet Pheko’s career only went from strength to strength when she was offered a lucrative contract with the Union Buildings.

It would be easy to write off her appointment as another example of cadre deployment, as the number of political appointees to the diplomatic corps has been steadily rising in the Zuma era. SA has 126 missions in 109 countries, costing the taxpayer about R2,5bn/year. According to Monyela, 70% of them are career diplomats, but according to two other officials in the department, the ratio is fast tipping in favour of political appointees, not all of whom are fit for the positions they now hold.

This not only speaks volumes about Zuma’s opinion of international relations but shows little regard for the importance of economic diplomacy during tough economic times.

Pheko does not quite fit the “political appointee” mould, however. She is a staunch member of the PAC, of which her father, Dr Motsoko Pheko, was a president (until he was fired for alleged financial mismanagement in 2006).

Why she has found such a secure shelter in the ANC-led diplomatic corps remains a mystery.

When asked why Dirco would allow her to represent the country abroad, Monyela refused to answer. Speaking for the presidency, Mac Maharaj said it was a matter for Dirco to deal with.