By Reginald Ntomba*
In his resignation speech on 14 August 1989, the then South African President, Pieter W. Botha angrily retorted: “The ANC is enjoying the protection of President Kaunda and is planning insurgency activities against South Africa from Lusaka.”
Two weeks later, on 29 August, Botha’s successor, Frederik De Klerk, met Kaunda in the Zambian resort town of Livingstone, a visit Botha condemned. The two leaders had lunch near the Victoria Falls, after which De Klerk described Kaunda as “an earnest Christian who has thought about the position of southern Africa.”
The history of Zambia’s role in the liberation of its southern Africa neighbours is still being written. Acknowledgements pour in at continental gatherings and bilateral summits. Zambia remains satisfied with its place in history over the role it played in advancing the quest for freedom.
By hosting liberation movements, Zambia was in the firing line and suffered reprisal attacks that led to a colossal loss of life and property. But throughout the region’s wars of independence, Kenneth Kaunda, an uncompromising nationalist, pan-Africanist, leader of the Frontline States and an outspoken critic of apartheid, believed that Zambia’s freedom was meaningless if its neighbours were not liberated. Therefore, the country had to pay a premium price to help liberate the region.
It was within this context that Lusaka became the region’s liberation centre. Several figures who went on to become presidents and top government leaders in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were educated and stayed in Zambia.
For 30 years, Lusaka was the headquarters of the ANC. It was here that the long-suffering Oliver Tambo directed the movement’s affairs. The house where Tambo stayed in Avondale Township is now a national monument, unveiled by President Jacob Zuma on a state visit to Zambia on 13 October 2017.
In 2014, Hugh Macmillan, a historian who lectured at the University of Zambia and interacted with the ANC leadership for 14 years, published The Lusaka Years, a book detailing the history of the ANC in the Zambian capital. It presents many facets. From Tambo’s headache of dealing with a movement comprising a complex mix of intellectuals, military and intelligence operatives, hotheads, communists, centrists, hardliners, conservatives and liberals, to the ideological battles, the clashing personalities, the misjudgments, the scandals, the tragedies, the fights with rival movements and the final breakthrough.
Relations not always smooth
The relationship between the ANC and their hosts was not always smooth. For instance, in the 1970s, Kaunda initiated contact with the apartheid regime without the knowledge of the ANC. They wondered whether Kaunda had ‘sold out’ but Tambo, ever the diplomat, kept his faith.
Thus the 1989 meeting was not the first that Kaunda held with the apartheid regime, despite his hardline stance which included a campaign for economic and political sanctions against Pretoria.
For many years, the ANC despised talks with ‘the enemy’ and believed freedom would be won solely through armed struggle. Similarly, the apartheid regime vowed never to talk to ‘murderers’.
But in 1985, Kaunda staged a diplomatic coup when he organised a meeting of the two parties at his private retreat in the South Luangwa National Park. That effectively opened the floodgates. By Macmillan’s estimates, there were not less than 100 meetings that followed and various South African government, business, church, student and trade union delegations flowed into Lusaka between 1985 and 1990, when Mandela was released from prison.
It was this city that Mandela first visited on 27 February 1990, 16 days after leaving Robben Island, his first foreign trip since 1962. On hand to receive Mandela and his then wife Winnie, were Presidents Kaunda (Zambia), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Joaquim Chissano (Mozambique), Quett Masire (Botswana), José Eduardo Dos Santos (Angola), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), Ali Hassan Mwinyi (Tanzania), Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat and several ANC exiles.
“It feels real now, I touched him,” Joe Slovo, general secretary of the South African Communist Party and a senior official of the ANC, was quoted as saying, after hugging Mandela at the airport.
Huge crowds of Zambians thronged the airport and lined the route into the city as Mandela was given Head of State treatment.
“I have often heard the expression that history is not made by kings and generals but by the masses of the people,” Mandela told the crowd in an unscripted speech because, he said, it was “an occasion where a man should speak from the heart”.
“It is the masses of the people of South Africa of all population groups, it is the people of Zambia, it is the people of the Frontline States, it is the people of the world who are making history, and that is why today we feel that, in the course of our struggle, we are on the verge of a breakthrough,” he continued.
Edward Ngoma was a third year student at the University of Zambia and says he and his friends found their way to the airport to see Mandela.
“I remember the day vividly. Kaunda declared a public holiday. We had no money but we hassled and made it before the Zambia Airways plane landed,” recalls Ngoma. “The university was a hotbed of political activity and as students we were involved in major international political events. Distance was not an issue, what mattered was standing with our oppressed brothers and sisters.”
Mandela’s example to leaders
It was time to discuss the future. Making good use of his home turf, his country’s notable sacrifice to the struggle and his personal involvement in the matter, Kaunda sought to build on his past mediation efforts and pushed the envelope by asking Mandela that the ANC suspend the armed struggle to encourage the apartheid regime to undertake reforms.
But Mandela rebuffed his host: “It is quite clear that the government is not yet prepared to meet us and you can’t expect us, therefore, to make any concessions to the government.”
But are the leaders of today living Mandela’s ideals?
“Today’s politicians are driven by greed. They, unlike Mandela, will do anything to sustain their hold on power, even if it means oppressing the masses. They are not bothered by the welfare of the citizenry,” argues Lusaka journalist Bradley Chingobe.
Chingobe argues that having spent nearly three decades fighting for freedom, Mandela did not seek to monopolise power like most African leaders: “Mandela was not fascinated by power. He believed power didn’t belong to an individual but the masses.”
Concluding his stirring tribute to Mandela at his memorial service in December 2013, US President Barack Obama said: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Mandela’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
While many are guilty as charged by Obama, there is plenty of room to improve and emulate Mandela’s leadership. After all, Mandela himself never claimed sainthood “unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying”.
Pressed for time at Mandela’s funeral, master of ceremonies, Cyril Ramaphosa, now the President of South Africa, asked Kaunda to speak because his vote of thanks was “one which we can’t avoid”, underscoring Zambia’s crucial role in the life of Mandela and South Africa. NA
*Reginald Ntomba is a Zambian journalist, author and political scientist. Aside from New African, he has written for various publications at home and abroad. He is the author of ‘The Mwanawasa Years’, a book on Zambia’s third president, Levy Mwanawasa.