Posted on January 18, 2024

Economist Thabi Leoka’s PhD Appears to Be a Figment of Her Imagination

Victoria O’Regan, Daily Maverick, January 17, 2024

South African economist Thabi Leoka, who has been exposed for allegedly not holding a PhD in economics from the London School of Economics (LSE) as she claims, previously testified under oath before the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training that she had a PhD from the institution.

Daily Maverick investigation could find no evidence that Leoka has been awarded a PhD from the LSE.

For weeks, Daily Maverick has sought answers from Leoka, requesting copies of her alleged PhD certificate and thesis. Her undertaking to provide evidence has come to nothing.

The LSE and the University of London have confirmed to Daily Maverick that they have no record of Leoka being awarded a PhD from either body.

Yet, following the publication of a Business Day article on Tuesday exposing Leoka as an alleged degree fraudster, the economist has doubled down — falsely claiming on air that Daily Maverick had cleared her of the charge and threatening legal action.

Under oath

Leoka provided expert testimony on 6 February 2017, in Pretoria, before the commission founded by former President Jacob Zuma after the #FeesMustFall protests that roiled South African university campuses in 2015.

“What are your full names please, Miss Leoka?” asked the chair of the commission, Judge Jonathan Heher, according to a transcript of the hearing.

“Thabi Leoka,” she responded.

Heher asked: “Do you swear that the evidence that you will give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

“I do.”

“If you do, raise your right hand and say, ‘So help me God’,” he said.

“So help me God.”

The discussion then turned to Leoka’s qualifications. She said she had five degrees: BA, honours and master’s degrees all from the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Then I did an MSC in economics and looking [sic] at economics and economic history and then a PhD in international economics at … the last two … University of London, LSE,” Leoka told the commission.

Heher asked: “And when did you get your latest degree?”

“In 2008,” Leoka replied.

In the years since appearing before the commission, Leoka has held numerous directorships as well as high-profile advisory positions to President Cyril Ramaphosa and former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. Her use of the honorific “Dr” appears in nearly every biography of her available online, and in media interviews, she is frequently introduced as “Dr” Thabi Leoka.

In 2018, “Dr” Leoka was among a panel of researchers appointed by Nene to review a list of VAT zero-rated items and terms of reference. In 2019, “Dr” Leoka was appointed by Ramaphosa to the Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC), to “advise the President and government more broadly, facilitating the development and implementation of economic policies that spur inclusive growth”.

She remains on the PEAC as an adviser.

References to her alleged PhD are also dotted all over the internet. There’s a photo of Leoka on the website of her high school, St Cyprian’s High School. Below it is the year she matriculated — 1996. Then, “PhD, Economist”.

She serves on the boards of several companies including Anglo American Platinum, the Small Business Institute and the Senegal-based consulting group Act-Afrique. She is also a board member of MTN SA, and in company documents, her official bio says she holds a PhD in economics from the University of London.

Additionally, “Dr” Leoka serves on the Statistics South Africa Council where she chairs the Economic Statistics Committee. She is also a former Corruption Watch board member.

Until recently, Leoka was also an independent, non-executive director at Remgro. The misrepresentation of her qualifications was allegedly one of the reasons which led to Remgro withdrawing her appointment at its annual general meeting (AGM) on 4 December, Business Day reported.

The Business Day report has catapulted Leoka to the top of the list of public figures who have misled the SA public about their qualifications.

Leoka has repeatedly defended her phantom PhD qualification to Daily Maverick and attempted to defer or block the story, promising copies of her degree that never arrived. Despite holding high-profile positions in the public and private sectors, Leoka told Daily Maverick that as she believed she was not a public figure, the queries relating to her qualifications were unjustified.

Unfulfilled promises

When first contacted by Daily Maverick on 4 December, Leoka said in a phone call that she had a PhD degree from the University of London.

“Yes, it’s given by the University of London,” she said.

In the call, she promised to provide Daily Maverick with copies of her PhD thesis and certificate from the institution, saying, “I’ll send you everything” — but failed to do so.

When Daily Maverick again requested proof of her alleged degree via a WhatsApp message, she replied: “I’m in meetings all day and this week is quite busy. I’m also not based in SA full time.”

A spokesperson from the London School of Economics (LSE) confirmed to Daily Maverick on 20 December: “We have checked our files and can find no record of Thabi Leoka being awarded a PhD from LSE.”

The University of London (UoL) told Daily Maverick, “LSE is a member of the University of London federation so a student might study with LSE directly but can also correctly say that they studied with the University of London.”

The University of London itself does not offer a PhD in Economics, so Leoka could not have received a degree from the university.

“We have looked into this query and the University of London does not oversee a PhD in economics, ” the university said in response to questions.

After further requests by Daily Maverick to explain the responses of the LSE and the University of London and provide proof of her certificate, Leoka said: “As mentioned earlier, I’m not based in SA full time. Since we spoke, I have been at the Miami Bascom Palmer Eye Hospital as I have glaucoma and have since lost sight in my right eye. This is why I didn’t stand for Remgro nominations. I also mentioned that my degree is from the University of London and my MSc is from LSE. You also don’t have my names as reflected on my degrees. I have damaged optical nerves and shouldn’t be on the phone because of the light.”

Leoka doubles down in 702 interview

In an interview with 702’s Clement Manyathela on Tuesday morning after Business Day broke the story, Leoka stated:

“What happened is that a journalist from — initially this started in December — a journalist from the Daily Maverick who was approached by someone who obviously seems to have a personal vendetta contacted me with various questions including on my qualifications. After I sent them information and they conducted their own investigation, they then ended up not writing the article. I thought that was it, the story is dead.”

The claims that Leoka sent Daily Maverick information and on this basis we abandoned the story are false. In fact, Daily Maverick was finalising its investigation and was due to publish a story imminently.

Leoka claimed that the time difference between South Africa and New York, where she is currently based, as well as her ongoing health issues, meant that she did not have time to respond to Business Day’s questions.

Asked directly by Manyathela if she held a PhD from the LSE, she replied: “Absolutely.”

She claimed that she had since changed her name, and this was why neither the LSE nor the University of London had any record of her degree. (Daily Maverick requested that LSE search for Leoka under her ID number, which would not be affected by her name change, and this too failed to yield results for the PhD.)

Leoka further claimed Daily Maverick had successfully located the record of her PhD, which is false.

She told Manyathela that proof of her degree would be provided in the course of the legal action she intends to take against Business Day. She added that the boards of all the relevant companies on which she sits had carried out vetting of her academic qualifications without issue.

Daily Maverick has established from three bodies with which Leoka was involved — Corruption Watch, the Presidency, and the Stats SA Council — that she was, in fact, never vetted for her qualifications as this was either not felt necessary or not a requirement. Anglo American has claimed to Daily Maverick that she was vetted.

Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya told Daily Maverick on Tuesday: “The Presidential Advisory Council is a non-statutory body, therefore, formal vetting is not a requirement. The members volunteer their time, and they are not employed by the Presidency, nor are they remunerated by the state. In the interest of transparency, the Presidency has requested Ms Leoka to expeditiously address the matter of her qualifications.”

Remgro’s Lwanda Zingitwa said, “Remgro is aware of the unconfirmed allegations that have been raised in the media against Thabi Leoka. Thabi Leoka was appointed as an independent non-executive director of Remgro, effective 22 March 2023 subject to shareholder approval at an AGM.

“The appointment was, however, not ratified at the Remgro AGM on 4 December 2023 as she advised the board that she opted to no longer stand for election as an independent non-executive director of the company due to personal reasons, at which point her tenure as a director of Remgro ended.”

Remgro did not respond to Daily Maverick’s question on whether it vetted Leoka’s qualifications when she joined Remgro.

There has been a rise in the number of fake qualification scandals over the years with the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia), which came into effect in 2021, making it increasingly difficult for journalists to confirm whether prominent figures hold the degree they claim from South African universities. Daily Maverick has previously drawn attention to the difficulty in exposing degree fraudsters due to privacy laws in South Africa.

In the wake of the Business Day report on Tuesday, Daily Maverick once again asked Leoka to furnish us with proof of her degree. She had not responded by the time of publication.