Serge Belamant, CEO of Net1 UEPS, which is responsible for distributing R20-billion in social grants monthly, appears to have bought his PhD from a university that never existed.
In May 2003, Belamant, who is referred to as "Dr Belamant" in all documents issued by his firm, made a donation to an entity calling itself Burkes University and, within weeks, was awarded an honorary PhD.
On Friday, the company, which is listed on the Nasdaq in the US and the JSE, issued a regulatory statement that an investigation by the board concluded "Belamant was the unfortunate victim of a scam and that the honorary degree was not legitimate".
Net1 UEPS describes how, in early May 2003, Belamant received an e-mail purporting to come from Burkes University, stating he had been short-listed by the honorary doctorate committee. He responded by providing information, "including proof of his memberships of professional societies, his academic record, patents he filed, his nomination for the South African chapter of the World Entrepreneur of the Year award and his work published in information security textbooks".
He also made a donation of an undisclosed sum and was promptly awarded the PhD.
The Net1 UEPS board was unable to track down Burkes University or even a website, but did establish it was "not a valid UK degree-awarding body".
A post on what looks like a zombie Burkes University website refers to donations of £4000 (about R900, 00) to £10, 000 for a PhD. On Friday, Belamant said it was unlikely he paid that much. "Back in 2003 I didn't have that sort of money; I think it was more like $500."
He said it was rather embarrassing to have been conned and described the scam as a "very good one". "At the time my secretary and I did a lot of work collecting all the papers they requested. It's unfortunate, but it doesn't take away from what I've achieved."
The Net1 UEPS website states "Dr Belamant holds a PhD in Information Technology and Management". The website also notes in glowing terms how Belamant was responsible for the design, development, implementation and operation of the Saswitch ATM network in South Africa and that he patented a number of inventions, including in biometrics and gaming.
Net1 UEPS's decision to come clean was prompted by growing social media debate on the matter, which, in turn, was prompted by an article carried on "Webb-Site Reports" on January 16. The Hong Kong-basedwebsite focuses on Chinese and Indian executives with Burkes degrees.
"There has never been a 'Burkes University' in the UK," writes analyst David Webb, who investigated the institution behind a growing number of academic qualifications. He has challenged holders of Burkes University honorary degrees to remove all references to the qualifications.
Belamant has been added to a growing list of holders of fake academic qualifications. But, unlike the other known "fakers", Belamant is from the private sector.
Up to now, the list has been dominated by political appointments such as Daniel Mtimkulu, former head of engineering at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (did not have an engineering degree); Hlaudi Motsoeneng, chief operating officer at the SABC (did not have a matric certificate); and former SABC chairwoman Ellen Tshabalala (did not have a BCom and postgraduate degrees from Unisa).
Given that Belamant founded Net1 UEPS and has been its CEO since 2000, it is likely that nothing but embarrassment will flow from the fact that such a sophisticated IT expert fell for a low-level internet scam.
"Even if he didn't realise it was fake, it was bad form to use the doctor title for an honorary award," said the holder of a series of honorary doctorates.