“The usefulness of useless grade 12 certificates.”

By Prof Mwine Lubemba

In our headline above, we’ve paraphrased the sub title of late Professor Lameki Goma’s speech at our graduation ceremony that he called: “The usefulness of useless disciplines.”

At that graduation, there were close to 500 grandaunts in the social science and less than 100 in the sciences. He was trying to make the point that it didn’t matter what your course of  study was but the value of that education and the knowledge gained was important training of a student’s brain to higher levels of inquiry.

I don’t want to dwell on grade 12 level educations per se, but on the overall value of higher educational inquiry that cannot be achieved without a grade twelve education. We want to do this in light of the discovery of the four new elements of the periodic table that we were taught in grade twelve secondary school science classes had not yet been discovered-but whose existence has now been confirmed and completes the 7th row of the scientific periodic table.

And no Zambian newspaper has carried this exiting news item.

I hear you ask…Hey Prof…Lubemba…who cares if scientists have now confirmed the existence of the four new elements that have been missing in the periodic table?

And I’ll say… that completes the period table! And if you had done grade twelve science and obtained a certificate, you’d be celebrating its happened in your life time!

True you need a Grade Twelve or passed your Form V pure physics or chemistry at Secondary School those good o’l days, to appreciate the magnitude this discovery of the four elements will have on science. Yes, it is meaningless and you shouldn’t be celebrating this discovery if you don’t understand the periodic table of elements. Scientists have long known the four elements exist but have been struggling for proof until last December 30, 2015 announcement.

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) in agreement with the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) announced that four new elements are being added to the periodic table. The IUPAC/IUPAP had separately “reviewed the relevant literature for elements 113,115,117 and 118 and has determined that the claims for discovery of these elements have now been fulfilled. And by completing the periodic table’s seventh row, it means all science textbooks are now obsolete. They belong to a scientifically backward civilization that had been using junk science in computer models to predict future outcomes. It’s a new era in science!

And you’d think the world over, CNN, Bloomberg, CNBC, and Aljazeera, Russia Today, including our local TVZ1 and 2 and several other Television networks would cut into their regular programming with the announcement? Nope. Nothing of that sort happened. In a flood of information on politics and the new constitution clauses demanding our attention, the news of the approval of the four new elements barely caused a ripple and never made it to the headlines in most news outlets not even on the rumours page of Zambian Tabloid newspapers!  And like most vitally important scientific discoveries in Zambia these days, this one will never get the publicity it deserves because most Zambians lack the helicopter view of the value of higher scientific research. And that’s the point I want to drive home today because even for us, the only reason this discovery is of interest is because of the uproar about the inclusion of a simple Grade Twelve certificate clause in our new constitution as a prequalification of any citizen becoming a deserving MP and Municipality councillor.

Some politicians are saying the inclusion of a Grade 12 school certificate clause will disadvantage most Zambian politicians who don’t have a school certificate. Others are saying it will turn Zambia into a one party state. In other words, these politicians would rather have a Zambia with an illiterate president, cabinet and parliament without the basics of higher levels of inquiry.

And to say an equivalent trade’s certificate after grade 7 is good enough qualification for an MP is truly a fallacy. A brick layer, tailor or carpenter is more than unlikely to have different levels of higher inquiry.  Because the benefits of a basic grade twelve education are countless and have a broad range of pay offs. The first of course is self- worth.  A basic good education shows character traits like discipline, commitment, sacrifice, courage and ability. A grade twelve is able to interact with people and have an intelligent conversation as well as one day be able to teach children not only by example but because you understand their grade 3 or 12 homework.

My only advice is that DON’T ever be someone in Zambia who finds education (or school) NOT important. Never stop learning, OR think you know it ALL! Because even with a PhD or DSC in Mass communications, economics, the sciences, engineering or medicine—YOU-DON’T!

Compare Zambia to China.

The former Chinese President Hu Jintao was a trained scientist –a Hydraulic engineer to be exact and likewise his premier Wen Jiabao was a geomechanical engineer or in fact 8 out of China’s top 9 government officials in Jintao’s cabinet were scientists. And the current President Xi studied Chemical engineering and went on to add a postgrad LLD degree. Now compare with the U.S.A., Britain or even Germany. Don’t bother yourself with South Africa, Angola or Zambia with the exception of President Lungu and a few Cabinet Ministers such as Dr Siyambikula whom I left with a slide rule studying Engineering at UNZA before (I hear) branching to become a lawyer with a post grad LLD degree. It would appear everyone else has had trouble completing their grade twelve or proving they’ve a simple grade twelve (form V) certificate. That’s why it’s caused anxieties and political ripples in the nation.

I also beg to differ with leaders of political parties who are now saying you don’t need an education to be a good leader or politician and that leadership is from God. That’s warped and stupid thinking. Because Zambia is being emptied out of any connection to civic literacy, informed judgement and critical dialogue- further deepening a culture of illiteracy, cruelty, hyper masculinity and disposability.

If Zambians don’t invest in education they must forget about achieving meaningful development in science and technology for eventual economic development and we will all remain in perpetual poverty. Besides, education in Zambia up to post grad university level has been free since 1965 that means everyone in politics today has had access to free education. So, any Zambian who wants to enter politics but does not qualify due to his or her humble education can still get back into secondary school and university to obtain the necessary qualifications needed. But the country cannot be held to ransom and substitute science and technological development through higher educational achievements with educational mediocrity. Or be full of people who were lazy to go to school and study to achieve higher levels of inquiry. If someone is not educated to basic grade twelve level or its equivalents, he or she has no business to be in position of leadership.  Period…

And I’ll tell you why in a moment…

When I was born and growing up, the atom bomb had already been dropped on the two Japanese cities. We heard the announcement on sauce pan radios that used big batteries that weighed half a kilogram may be more; we had gramophones too, that would play slates and not vinyl records and they used a spring instead of electrical power. The Kariba dam was designed, built and was operational five years after I was born or let me just say all of us kids wanted to know what brilliant new inventions those days the scientists would come up with next.

Yes, we learned a lot about science through Captain Marvel, Supper man and Bat Man, comics and bioscope movies brought and shown in African Townships by mobile Federal Information Service trucks. We also learned about the American West and the civil war through Cowboy movies. And we would try to make our own cowboy movies using card board boxes and candles to shine on cut out images whose shadows would be cast on white walls and we would make our audiences pay with shirt or jacket buttons which in turn we would go and gamble with or play bookie to multiply our buttons and sometimes we would lose all our buttons in the bets-that was how we understood economics. If we stole buttons from our parent’s shirts we would be punished severely. And we made our own car, truck and aircraft toys too. And during the rainy season weekends and school holidays we would be made to help out in our parents’ small gardens where they grew sweet potatoes, maize, pumpkins and many other crops for home consumption. In a good year our family maize, ground nuts and pumpkin harvest would last us a whole year. And we would walk long distances to these gardens. But above all this play and self-sufficiency work discipline, our parents made sure we excelled in our school class work.

Oh by the way…if you missed the family lunch hour or supper when everyone else in the family was present—it was your tough luck…you went without lunch or slept hungry. When I was growing up, we were taught through parental actions that only the tough got going in life. Today, everyone, adults and their children, looks up to somebody else to sort out their problems. It’d be impossible if not shameful those days when I was growing up, to beg from the colonial government as you would be called a lazy family.

Yes, you’re right, we’re digressing. So although I was not born when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our Scottish science teacher, a World War II veteran at Secondary school, loved telling us the story and we were always delighted to hear it.

Our science teacher was Mr Cobbett he used to tell us that without the Atomic Bomb, the west as we know it today would not have been. From Form I to Form V, I grew up acknowledging the value of science in the western world’s technological breakthroughs.

Most colleagues don’t understand the value of science in our political dispensation. Science is inherently political. I do not mean to say by this that science makes political action possible, it does of course, make political action possible but only because it is itself political action par excellence. Scientific research is an interpretative act and thus, it is a sense making act but one that through its interpretations and conventional authority reinforces or destabilizes other narratives in the world. Science is valid form of obtaining knowledge about the world; science is the empirical way of knowing. That’s why we need political leaders who understand the basics.

Over the years, alas, something terrible has happened to science in Zambia—more precisely, to our excitement about science.

We love our gadgets and devices. We can be passionate about the latest smart phone or Laptop apps. We can boast about owning the best smart TV, Microwave oven and Wi-Fi and Blue tooth capabilities in our cars. And despite our constant criticism of the white owned western pharmaceutical companies, we demand faster approval for their new HIV, Ebola, Malaria and other medicines that emerge from their research arms.

But basic science — science for its own sake — has largely lost its lustre. Apart from palaeontologists and creationists, nobody much cares about the Broken Hill Man skull found in Kabwe mine or whether those fossils that keep turning up in China really belonged to a dinosaur with pernicious feathers. The discovery of the most distant known galaxy this past year by NASA didn’t produce a sudden wave of excitement and awe as we looked up at the sky and contemplated our place in the cosmos. What thrills us most nowadays isn’t growth in the body of human knowledge, but innovations that apply that knowledge in our day-to-day lives.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the day-to-day. We have a lot to worry about: the economy, possible terrorism at our door step, climate change, load shedding, low copper prices, poverty — the list goes on and on. We have to take our small pleasures where we can find them.

But it’s important, too, to seek sources of awe. As the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin noted in his final book, one source to which we can all look, whatever our religious or political persuasions, is the majesty of the universe itself.

When I was a kid, our shared delight in scientific accomplishment had nothing to do with any practical application of the technology. We didn’t read about the latest discoveries to help us get into the right college. Our fascination was evoked by the simple fact that such things could be done. We didn’t sit on the edge of our seats with excitement each time the U.S. or Russian astronauts went up because we were hoping one day to find uses for Teflon or Tang; what thrilled us was the reminder of the potential scope of human knowledge and achievement.

That’s what should make the discovery of the four new elements so exciting. They help us to look at the universe with awe. Their discovery completes the seventh row of the periodic table. Okay, so since secondary school, we don’t think about the periodic table too often. Maybe we remember it as a bizarrely coloured wall chart we had to memorize in form I (grade 8), or as a set of columns and rows whose mysteries we briefly unlocked to pass undergraduate chemistry and physics at UNZA.


Because the periodic table is more than that. It’s a near- perfect index to the various properties of the elements, and in that sense a window into creation. When the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev organized his early version in the 1860s, he was ridiculed by his fellow scientists for believing such a chart could predict the properties of elements yet undiscovered. But he was right.  And the periodic table continues to predict. The four newly approved elements fit in exactly as they’re supposed to. That’s exciting. They are “highly unstable super heavy metals that exist for only a tiny fraction of a second.” That’s exciting too. In the next instant, as a physicist quoted on the IUPAC website puts it, “they decay into hitherto unknown isotopes of slightly lighter elements that also need to be unequivocally identified.” Meaning there’s more excitement to come as Japanese researcher Kosuke Morita at Riken research institute said his team “now planned to look to the uncharted territory of element 119 and beyond.”

And the leader of the German super heavy element research group, supported by the Australian Government’s NCRIS program, are readying themselves to measure fission characteristics for several nuclear reactions forming element 120. The results will guide future experiments in Germany that form the new super heavy elements.

“IUPAC has now initiated the process of formalising names and symbols for the discovered four elements that have temporarily been named as ununtrium, (Uut or element 113), ununpentium (Uup, element 115), ununseptium (Uus, element 117), and ununoctium (Uuo, element 118).”

Not thrilled yet?

I’m thankful for the free secondary and university education the Zambian Government was able to make available to me and every Zambian child and the knowledge gained from this education for knowledge’s sake. I have no idea what, if anything, the new elements will be useful for in my lifetime. But it’s exciting that they’ve been discovered. And I’ve lived long enough to be there.

And Professor Goma was right; we should accept that this grade twelve certificate clause is useful after all for without it, the discovery of the four new elements that completes the 7th row of the periodic table that we learnt were missing in grade twelve science class would have been rendered useless to us.


 Just a thought,


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