Zambia’s last hero standing – Kaunda at 90

Zambia’s last hero standing – Kaunda at 90
  • PublishedJune 25, 2014

Zambia’s former President Kenneth Kaunda turned 90 on 28 April. The celebrations went well and the nation united in giving the former freedom fighter an occasion to remember. But still, there were people who ran against the grain by calling for a wider scrutiny of his legacy. Reginald Ntomba reports from Lusaka. 

A lavish banquet, an interdenominational thanksgiving service, a golf tournament featuring the country’s corporate elite, a football match of Zambia’s stars of yesteryear, numerous gift-delivering delegations and countless messages of goodwill from home and abroad is how Kaunda celebrated his 90th birthday – and perfectly so.

The chain of festivities carried on for weeks. His only regret was that he was without Betty, his wife of 66 years who died in September 2012. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, the government, the nation and the outside world represented by their diplomats provided the nonagenarian with the much-needed company to toast this remarkable milestone.

Kaunda has seen it all. He is one of a few of Africa’s liberation heroes left standing.  Born of missionary parents who migrated from Malawi and settled in northern Zambia, he quit his teaching profession to participate in the liberation of the country and the continent. After a protracted struggle, which took him to prison, he became president of Zambia at the young age of 40 in 1964 and ruled the country for 27 years.

Widely credited for guiding and holding the nation together in its formative stages and amid its vast ethnic diversity, Kaunda stands tall and his place in history is more than guaranteed. Being the leader of a country surrounded by yet-to-be independent states meant Zambia under his leadership had to play a crucial role in assisting other countries. The tough decisions his government made in that regard are attributed to his courage and willingness to sacrifice for others.

For that reason, Kaunda is not only a hero. At one of the birthday functions, Vice President Guy Scott narrated the trouble he had passing through Johannesburg airport with Kaunda when they went to attend Mandela’s funeral. At every point, Scott said, people wanted to stop and greet Kaunda. Zambians who travel abroad have their own experiences of being reminded by their hosts of the good things Kaunda did for their countries.

Kaunda is widely credited for guiding and holding the nation together in its formative stages

His first 10 years after leaving office were awful. An attempted political comeback in 1996 went badly, after the government put a discriminatory clause in the constitution barring people with foreign parentage from contesting the presidency. In protest, his United National Independence Party (UNIP) boycotted the general election that year and that is widely believed to have been a huge political misjudgement that has thrown the party into extinction.

In August 1997 he was nearly killed when police opened fire and a bullet hit his head at an opposition rally he was due to address in the town of Kabwe, north of the capital, Lusaka. The same year, he was arrested after being accused of coup plotting. Julius Nyerere flew into Lusaka to negotiate his freedom and pressure from other elders on the continent forced the government to release Kaunda.

Further, in what was interpreted as sheer political vindictiveness, the government of Frederick Chiluba declared Kaunda ‘stateless’, threatening him with deportation. But this move embarrassed the government rather than Kaunda, given his profile as a respected statesman. It was Chiluba’s successor, Levy Mwanawasa, who brought Kaunda in from the cold.

At 90, Kaunda has showed no signs of slowing down. He has dedicated his time to humanitarian causes such as HIV/Aids, children and homelessness, appearing at many events locally and abroad, in addition to being the government’s special envoy.

A vegetarian since 1953, he occasionally plays golf and his love for the guitar is undiminished, mesmerising audiences with his tunes.

Since leaving office over two decades ago, Kaunda has generally shied away from discussing his legacy. Insiders say his memoirs are being worked on. As and when they are published, it would be interesting to know what reflections he offers on his experience on the stage.

The full story

Although revered and enjoying the status of “father of the nation”, Kaunda has not escaped other negative labels being thrown at him – including that of “divisive figure” because of his apparent failure to operate above the political fray. As a matter of fact, Kaunda has brought some of the criticism on himself.

In past elections, he has played contestants against each other by supporting one and dismissing others. In the 2001 election, he endorsed late opposition leader Anderson Mazoka as well as his son Tilyenji Kaunda. His later criticism of Mwanawasa, who controversially won the same election, earned him a barbed response, telling him to stay out of politics and reminding him how harshly Chiluba’s government had treated him. 

Written By
New African

1 Commentaire

  • Zambians who oppose Kaunda are both stupid and undemocratic, let it be told.

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