Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda, died on 17 June aged 97. He was the last of the generation of African leaders that ushered in independence and fought for the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Zambian journalist and political scientist Reginald Ntomba looks back at Kaunda’s life and legacy.
“Finally, August of 1978, we landed in Lusaka with no small amount of relief. It was a great honour to be greeted so warmly by President Kaunda and the people of Zambia. None of us had experienced anything like it before. We were treated as VIPs of the highest calibre, met with a delegation on the tarmac and ceremoniously walked from the foot of the plane straight into a waiting motorcade of diplomatic vehicles. Everyone involved was as friendly as they were courteous.”
That is Zimbabwean Jesuit priest Father Fidelis Mukonori in his memoir Man in the Middle recalling the reception his Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) delegation were accorded in Lusaka as part of their shuttle diplomacy for the country’s independence that came two years later.
The welcome Father Mukonori describes above is one that had became a legendary practice of Kaunda’s and extended to many visitors to Lusaka who were in search of freedom or merely transiting through this city of peace, which, apart from hosting a chain of freedom movements, was also a venue for various peace talks.
Kaunda’s legacy will inevitably be divided into two.
First, that of a tough and uncompromising anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, freedom-for-all activist and Pan African advocate who believed in building regional and continental solidarity and consensus in resolving the pertinent questions of freedom and peace. It is here where his liberation credentials shine to the high heavens and are a great source of admiration by the international community.
Second, as a domestic politician who courageously led his country to a negotiated settlement of independence, then centralised power around himself, shrunk the democratic space and jailed opponents, but one who, to his eternal credit, read the times correctly and never resisted the masses’ final call to leave the seat of power.
Kaunda the international statesman
After gaining independence from Britain in October 1964, Kaunda’s next task was to help liberate the rest of the Southern African region. With his thinking aligned to Kwame Nkrumah’s, he believed that Zambia’s political freedom was meaningless if the rest of the region was still under the colonial yoke. The reason was simple: Zambia is surrounded by eight countries and is reliant on their channels for trade. Having these countries under colonial rule would make it difficult for Zambia to do any trade and operate on the regional scale.
On the western and eastern flanks of Zambia, Angola and Mozambique were still waging a war of independence against the fascist regime in Lisbon. Both achieved independence in 1975, although they would both soon fall into a long-running proxy civil war – and in both cases, Zambia had to host thousands of refugees fleeing the wars.
On the southern end, the racist regime of Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia held sway but was under the double onslaught of the African guerrilla movement that was launching incursions from Zambia and Mozambique. The guerrilla fighters eventually prevailed and triumphantly marched to independence in April 1980. Zimbabwe was free.
In the south west, the Germans had long gone from Namibia, but the apartheid regime in Pretoria had its hand in Windhoek until March 1990 when independence dawned. In Malawi, the only other country that got independence the same year as Zambia and should have helped in providing support to other freedom fighters, its leader Hastings Kamuzu Banda, refused to have anything to do with the liberation wars of the region. He was thus isolated in that corner as a puppet of the apartheid regime.
So, it was Zambia under Kaunda’s leadership and Tanzania under Nyerere (and later Mwinyi) that midwifed the freedom of southern Africa by providing a base for all the liberation movements to organise and prosecute their war of independence. But given its proximity to the warfront, it was Lusaka where everyone congregated and plotted their freedom.
The Liberation Centre under the OAU Liberation Committee in Lusaka hosted Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo), the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the Unity Movement (UM) of South Africa, and the mother of all liberation movements, the African National Congress (ANC) whose headquarters were in Lusaka for 30 years.
Freedom Radio, the ANC propaganda station, was based in Lusaka and churned out its messages from there to energise the exiles and those inside South Africa, much to the chagrin of the minority apartheid regime. In his resignation speech on 14 September 1989, 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.” He was stating the obvious.
By hosting the liberation movements, Zambia was in the firing line and suffered reprisal attacks that led to a colossal loss of life and property. But for Kaunda, that was the price Zambia had to pay to liberate the region. It was a worthy sacrifice. Some of the people that are now Presidents and ministers in various countries had their sanctuary in Zambia and were educated there. For instance, Zimbabwe’s current President Emmerson Mnangagwa stayed in Mumbwa, a town 150 km west of Lusaka and served as youth secretary of Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP) before he joined ZANU in Mozambique.
As the region became completely independent with the fall of apartheid in 1994, the dividends flowed as seen in increased cross-border trading among nationals of the region and several of the exiles who had stayed and studied in Lusaka were now running their own governments. By then, Kaunda was out of power, fulfilling a Greek proverb about old men who plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.
As chairman of the Frontline States, Kaunda was committed to the freedom of the region so much that sometimes he ran the risk of being misunderstood even by the people he was helping. For instance, in the 1970s, he initiated contact with the same apartheid regime he was against and without the knowledge of the ANC. Two weeks after Botha’s resignation, Kaunda met FW De Klerk, Botha’s successor, in the Zambian city of Livingstone. De Klerk described Kaunda as “an earnest Christian who has thought about the position of southern Africa.”
Had Kaunda sold out? “Never! We can never sell out, not me, not these men and women here,” he said in a speech in Lusaka.
Kaunda’s role in the liberation of the region is the reason many Zambians travelling abroad are asked about him. Through his uncompromising fight for freedom, he placed his name and that of the country on a high pedestal. His immense contribution to the freedom of the continent is his lasting legacy abroad. It was therefore not surprising that the countries of the region declared periods of mourning for him: South Africa (10 days), Zimbabwe (14 days) Botswana (seven days), Tanzania (seven days), Namibia (seven days) and Mozambique (six days).
Kaunda the Zambian leader
The youngest of eight children, Kaunda was born on 24 April 1924 at Lubwa Mission in Chinsali District in the then Northern Rhodesia to missionary parents who had migrated from the former Nyasaland (now Malawi). He became a teacher like his parents, but being born and raised in an area that was a hotbed of the freedom struggle immediately took its toll on him. In 1951 he joined the fight for independence under the African National Congress (ANC) led by Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula. Seven years later in 1958, he was among the freedom fighters that were arrested, and he was imprisoned for nine months in the northwest of the country. On his release from prison, he found that a radical wing of the party had broken off from ANC and formed a new party, the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress, later renamed the United National Independence Party (UNIP), whose leadership awaited Kaunda.
Following the 1962 election, Kaunda’s UNIP and Nkumbula’s ANC formed a coalition government that lasted through the independence talks with Britain at Lancaster House. On October 24, 1964, Zambia became independent and Kaunda became President of a new nation called Zambia, whose name was coined from the Zambezi River.
Post-independence, Kaunda’s government worked hard to deliver the fruits of struggle. With vast copper reserves and a zealous crop of nationalists eager to demonstrate the benefits of self-rule, Kaunda and his group got to work and put up national infrastructure such as primary, secondary and trade schools, colleges, hospitals, roads and power stations. The University of Zambia opened in 1966, just two years after independence and would educate not only future Zambian leaders, but also many from southern Africa.
But, like most post-independence African leaders, Kaunda committed the cardinal sin of centralising power around himself through the declaration of the One-Party State. The rationale was that to concentrate the efforts on national development as well as to effectively tackle the freedom of the region, it was necessary to eliminate domestic political competition. Thus, in December 1972 Kaunda unilaterally changed the national Constitution and made UNIP the sole political organisation in the country.
That began the democratic slide that would last the next 17 years. Kaunda kept a tight lid on dissent, became increasingly paranoid and at every turn detained and tortured political dissenters. As he closed the political space, removing him by force became the only option by those seeking a change of the political order. He survived three military coups. That is why amid so much praise for Kaunda abroad, at home there are some who strongly feel his dictatorial record should not be wished away.
“When somebody dies, let’s not just highlight the good they did. We must also mention the atrocities they committed. History should never be told in a segregative manner,” wrote Lusaka journalist Bradley Chingobe on his social media page. “We owe it to the future of this nation to tell the real story of Kenneth Kaunda. The scars of the brutal UNIP One Party dictatorship remain embedded in a lot of families in Zambia. It was not as rosy as many want to make it seem today.”
If the politics was a mess, the economy was in a worse position and is the singular factor that hastened his departure. In 1968 and 1969, Kaunda had announced a government takeover of the retail and mining sectors, respectively, with the aim of effecting greater State control of the economy. But the parastatal sector overemployed and grew increasingly inefficient and was feeding the party in typical socialist style as the running of the companies was dominated by party functionaries. The fall in copper prices and shortage of basic commodities all combined to create a toxic cocktail of an economic fallout. By the mid-1980s, food riots were common and pressure was mounting on Kaunda. The cookie had crumbled.
A pro-democracy movement was born in July 1990 and began pushing for a return to multiparty politics. To his credit, Kaunda read the times correctly and did not resist. Having been re-elected in 1988, his term of office was running to 1993, but he agreed to cut it short and hold elections in October 1991. He lost the election by a landslide and immediately called his successor Frederick Chiluba to congratulate him.
Legacy in Zambia
Abroad Kaunda is remembered for his role in the liberation struggle. But what is his legacy at home?
First, his ability to unite a country so ethnically diverse under the motto ‘One Zambia, One Nation’ is highly recognised as a major achievement. Kaunda held the nation together for 27 years without civil strife even amid some major political disagreements that in other countries would have ripped the nation apart.
Second, most of Kaunda’s generation of freedom fighters were of humble education, but his government’s decision to quickly build education infrastructure and institute a policy of free education enabled most Zambians (and citizens of other neighbouring countries) in the early years of nationhood to get educated and contribute to national development. That stands out.
Third, he could have resisted the call for a return to multiparty politics. Worse still, he could have used force to deny the victors their victory in 1991 and locked them up. But his magnanimity to accept the people’s will and gracefully bow out remains admirable to date.
Fourth, his economic policies centred around socialism were a disaster and took away from what would otherwise have been a shining economic model given the small population and vast national resources the country was endowed with.
Fifth, it is generally felt he overstayed and, in a bid to keep himself insulated from political competition, he resorted to very autocratic means that not only dented his record, but also destroyed political careers of others.
Overall, though, even taking into account his excesses, he goes to the grave more admired than ever.