By Kellys Kaunda
MINIMUM VS EQUIVALENT – A WAR OF WORDS: MY REFLECTIONS ON MY MEMBERSHIP OF THE ELECTORAL TECHNICAL COMMITTEE
President Levy Mwanawasa was Head of State at the time the Electoral Technical Committee was set up to reflect on the electoral system and everything that has to do with elections in Zambia and make recommendations. At the time, State Counsel George Kunda (now late) was Minister of Justice and signed letters of appointment for committee members. At the time, I was chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the MISA-Zambia chapter.
Chaired by Counsel Mwangala Zaloumis, the Committee traveled around the country and held public hearings receiving submissions from members of the public. Some of the submissions touched on the electoral system while others on the qualifications of candidates. Some of the submissions reflected what had been submitted to previous Constitutional Review Commissions.
To reflect on the submissions and draw up a report, the committee went to Siavonga and stayed for several days. One of the hotly debated submission was the qualification of presidential candidates and other public offices such as Member of Parliament and Councilor. Opinion was deeply divided over such qualifications as a degree, a diploma or a grade twelve certificate.
While no one was opposed in principle to a degree as the desired qualification, there was a feeling among some members that the committee was going to be seen as targeting some political candidates that were not known to possess degrees. Others felt that the degree was too high a standard and would result in disenfranchising many people.
This debate leaked to the media the following day and I was blamed for it and subsequently ordered to leave the camp. I was to head back to Lusaka the following day but a friend of mine in Lusaka who learnt about what had befallen me decided to drive in the night, arriving around 22hrs and picked me up.
The spirit behind the submission on qualifications was embedded in the word “minimum”. It was the intention of those that submitted in favor of qualifications that someone seeking public office needed to have evidence that they were educated. They reasoned that the work of governance meant engaging with policy and legislative matters that required some level of education if someone was to make meaningful contributions.
In the end, the law reflected grade twelve as a minimum qualification or its equivalent for President, Member of Parliament and Councilor. According to Section 33 of the Electoral Act No. 12 of 2006 a candidate running for any of these public offices must have, “obtained, as a minimum academic qualification, a grade twelve certificate or its equivalent”.
In the constitutional court ruling, the word “equivalent” has been defined to mean nothing below and nothing above. In effect, any higher qualification is not included in the law as defined. What about the word “minimum”, what if the court had attempted to define this word, would it have made a difference? I think it would. When a minimum standard is set, it means there is a higher standard which is more desirable. The word is used to sympathize with those that may not be able to meet higher standards. In other words, someone is saying, “the standard is this but if you can’t, at least meet this standard which is the lowest I can go”.
Those that submitted had in mind higher standards of education, but they were also sympathetic of those that could not meet them. Subsequently, a compromise was reflected in the law which lowered the threshold to grade twelve. But the court has ruled, so what do we do? Well, my suggestion is this: amend the law immediately and include professional qualifications as acceptable.
Between now and nomination time, parliament can make these amendments and avoid disenfranchising the many professionals that do not have grade twelve certificates.