24 February 2009

Fake, summa cum laude

As Carl Niehaus's apparently self-devised life story unravels, CyberShrink takes a closer look at why anyone would go to these lengths.

As new revelations in the Carl Niehaus story continue to surface, and as his apparently self-devised life story unravels, one wonders what's next.

I liked the column published on a satirical site in which the writer jokes that Niehaus had confessed "that he was in fact Hestrie van Tonder, a 52-year-old divorced mother of four from Boksburg". It would seem less far-fetched than what we've seen in recent days. He could be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, if they could decide which of his life stories to film.

No grounds for pity
Some, oddly, have said they feel sorry for him, and feel he has atoned for whatever he did by his tearful admissions. This is just naïve. He used "truth" only manipulatively, his "admissions" only occurring when he was confronted with clear evidence that he had been found out, and he only admitted to what at that time he believed had already been uncovered.

Such admissions are made to buy sympathy and forgiveness from unthinking romantics. Even some of his admissions seem dodgy - he was quoted as admitting he owed large sums to the Rhema Church, only to have the Church deny that he currently owes them anything. Gosh, when we enter territory where even the confessions may be untruthful, things get really complex.

Clouds of deceit
He seems never to have earned a job with his own actual qualifications and work record, but rather through political connections, encouraging the culture of entitlement.

Employed in jobs where he has neither training nor experience, what exactly were his employers expecting from him, other than benefits related to his high-level political friendships? He got a top job at Deloitte, Touche (who'd have thought that accountants would have urgent need of an expensive religious scholar?) and there had problems relating to his lavish spending.

Then he moved on to the Rhema Church (which one might have thought would have enough theologians) only to have to resign from there under another financial cloud. Why did a church worker need a Porsche and a Merc?

Rescued again by a lovely job in the Presidency, he left there under another cloud, after repaying further loans from colleagues. Yet some officials are quoted as speaking of him not completing work expected of him, and being inefficient.

Helping or enabling?
Despite his growing reputation for debt and bad handling of financial affairs, many of those grace-and-favour jobs gave him control over very large sums of money. Were his political friends in effect enablers, helping him get deeper into debt, rather than pressing him to get the help he obviously needed?

Just as one sees within dysfunctional families how well-meaning responses can be enabling, encouraging further wrong-doing, so one wonders about how the ANC seems to have reacted to this and similar irregularities. Reflex denial of wrong-doing coupled with a lack of significant discipline of the wrong-doer, lures them into a downward spiral.

It appears that surprisingly many senior figures knew of some, if not all, of his misrepresentations, debts, and the foolishly lavish and pointless lifestyle, apparently without seriously challenging this, and while indeed rewarding it. Switching him to other jobs with further opportunities to get into trouble, did not help.

None of his gross spending seems to have related to anything other than a love of bling and splurging on the best housing, holidays and vehicles. Does anyone who can't afford it, really need a Porsche, a Merc, and a four-wheel drive?

He's heavily in debt from renting a grossly luxurious mansion in Midrand, but then The Star revealed a R2 million judgement was awarded against him for defaulting on repayments on a home in Sandton that was listed as his residence. There was also another judgement against him not long before, for space leased in the Michelangelo Towers.

There are reports he ran into major financial crises after committing himself to buy a luxurious house in one of the most prestigious streets in Amsterdam, Prinzengracht. After this exercise, he owed a million rand as a cancellation fee when he tried to withdraw. How much space did this guy need?

Fake, summa cum laude
Oh yes, the qualifications. So far, his Matric seems genuine, and two Unisa degrees obtained while in jail. But there have been undenied reports that his claim to a degree from Wits and two from Holland, are false. One wonders at how uncurious everyone was.

He claimed he received his first summa cum laude degree, a BA, from Wits in 1983. How could he have managed that? He apparently only registered at Wits in 1982, and was rather busy in court, facing charges of high treason, in a trial which ended in November 1983. When was there time to complete a degree? A university spokesman has been quoted as saying he never graduated at all.

He claimed to have received a Master's and Doctor's degree at the University of Utrecht (summa cum laude, of course) while working as SA Ambassador in Holland. Must be a very leisurely job to enable one to do all the work that that would have required. That university has apparently confirmed that he never received a doctorate there. Not content with claiming fake degrees, he insisted (his CV reads oddly in this way) that he earned every one of them "summa cum laude", with the highest possible marks.

Curiouser and curiouser
He mentions having received a knighthood from Queen Beatrix, as if this recognised his amazing career achievements, when it was a routine honour for a South African ambassador, and not at all related to his personal achievements, if any. He claimed, in his CV, to belong to many boards, committees, companies and organisations, though in many cases these claims, too, seem untrue. Others have told of him making heart-rending claims to have leukaemia, or that his sister had died, rather like someone with Munchausen Syndrome.

Some media report him to be some R 4.5 million in debt ; but recently he paid lobola on his latest wife (at least he only marries them one at a time). And it is alleged that in the prenuptial agreement, he stated his assets as R 12.5 million.

Struggle doubts
Some may see all the protection and promotion he received, as a just reward for his heroic part in the freedom struggle, and his years spent in prison for high treason. Yet when one hears that he was caught after boasting of an act of sabotage to someone who then told the police, it has to be recognised as the act of a braggart and a highly unskilled activist, and not at all an act of courage.

Now his claims to have been raped during his treason trial are being questioned, too. Several aspects of this story sound odd, but again, he didn't claim an assault or single rape of the sort tragically common in prisoners, but a veritable all-night orgy of rape by countless prisoners - even here, his achievement had to be summa cum laude.

Had this been true, one wonders whether his blood-stained and limping body would not have been noticed in court in this high-profile case. And why would he have said nothing of it for so many years, not mentioning it in his autobiography? And why then, years later, did he then publish the gory account online as an "open letter" to his 11-year-old daughter? Why on earth would one choose to tell a girl of 11 such a horrible tale, and why do so in such a highly public fashion? That borders on the abusive.

No defence
It appears that he may be preparing a defence, should he be charged, based on some sort of reaction to his prison experiences. But it would be an insult to the many other victims of apartheid and maltreatment during the struggle, to assume that this is a common reaction, or a justification or mitigation of what he chose to do - and repeatedly so. A statement blamed his problems on his imprisonment "for his principled opposition to apartheid" - as distinguished from unprincipled opposition? He was surely imprisoned for his part in a sabotage plot, not for simply opposing apartheid.

It should be a relief to hear that he is to seek psychological help, as it must be agreed that he deserves that. Of course such treatment will be confidential, unless he decides to try to use a psychological defence should he end up in Court.

Based purely on what has been revealed in the media (and which appears to have received no denial from Niehaus) a likely diagnosis could be a Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which fits many of the revelations, though it would not serve to excuse any of his conduct in any civil or criminal trial. There's a characteristic grandiosity and arrogance; an immense empathy with his own troubles, and none for those of anyone else; an expectation of admiration and sympathy, coupled with a strong sense of entitlement.

An alternative diagnosis would be the old Greek term hubris. It meant an excessive pride and arrogance leading to actions which shame the perpetrator, folly leading to ruin.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, Health24, February 2009)


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