142. Farewell to Zambia’s Founding Father

Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 21 June 2021
Publication: The Guardian (Nigeria)
Image courtesy of: https://common https://en.wikipedia.org

Zambia’s “Founding Father,” Kenneth Kaunda, who died in a Lusaka hospital on 17 June at the age of 97, was the last of the first generation of African leaders who fought for the liberation of their countries. A devout Christian and ascetic Gandhian pacifist, Kaunda was a perpetual optimist who believed that all challenges could be overcome. He led Zambia to independence in 1964, ruling the country for 27 years until 1991.

A Christian Childhood

Kenneth David Kaunda was born in Lubwa in Zambia’s northern province in April 1924. His parents had emigrated from Malawi (then Nyasaland) so that his priest-father, David, could take up a teaching job. His mother, Helen, became one of the first black female teachers in Northern Rhodesia. They had seven children, and Kenneth was the eighth and therefore christened Buchizya: “the unexpected one.” The precocious child attended Lubwa Church of Scotland mission school, before joining the elite Munali secondary school in Lusaka. At the age of 19, he returned to Lubwa mission to teach, before working in Tanganyika.

From Teacher to Independence Fighter

After serving as headmaster of his old Lubwa mission school, Kaunda entered politics to fight the injustices of white minority rule. He joined the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress (ANC) in 1948, and his meteoric rise was built around impressive organising, proselytising oratory, and charismatic leadership. He soon became deputy to the more conservative and cautious Harry Nkumbula. Kaunda vehemently opposed the British-controlled Central African Federation (1953-1963) involving Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland, which he rightly saw as an instrument for the British to entrench white minority dominance.

Kaunda was jailed in 1955 for disseminating “subversive” literature. Upon his release two years later, he visited Britain and India, the home of his idol, Mahatma Gandhi, whose satyagraha non-violent methods he enthusiastically embraced. Kaunda’s attendance of the All African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958 exposed him to Africa’s most important liberation fighters. He extended his Pan-Africanism to the diaspora by visiting Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. He was again imprisoned in 1959. Upon his release nine months later, he joined the United National Independence Party (UNIP), launching a nation-wide civil disobedience campaign.  At the age of 40, Kaunda finally became president of independent Zambia in October 1964.

Autocratic Politician, Ruinous Economist

He inherited a country of four million people that had been ill prepared for independence by British colonialists: the economy was entirely controlled by non-Zambians, and the country had just 109 university graduates, with only 0.5% of its population having attended primary school. Kaunda established free primary education, expanded health-care, and mobilised his population to support the building of a university. Donning his trademark safari suits, he was an astute but ruthless politician, establishing a one-party state by 1973. His efforts at promoting a nebulous philosophy of “Humanism” achieved mixed results, as he developed a personality cult in which supporters chanted “God in heaven – on earth, Kaunda.”

He routinely won presidential elections unopposed with 80% majorities, clamped down harshly on dissent, jailed opponents like Simon Kapwepwe, and became increasingly aloof. This resulted in several attempted military coups d’état. Kaunda, however, provided political stability with careful ethnic balancing, and consistently insisted on “One Zambia, one nation”. But the system also prevented leadership renewal and depended entirely on Kaunda. Loyalty to the leader thus sometimes trumped competence. Kaunda, however, had a softer side and often wept in public, using his trademark white handkerchief to douse his tears. Strumming his guitar, he sang folk songs and Christian hymns. Zambia’s football team – “KK 11” – was named after him.

Zambia’s copper boom between 1964 and 1973 had maintained the illusion of rapid progress, but 90% of the country’s exports came from this metal whose global price crashed. The simultaneous 1973 “oil crisis” tripled petroleum prices and made it difficult to import food and other essential goods. Kaunda also disastrously nationalised foreign-owned firms and created the Zambia Industrial and Mining Corporation parastatal by 1971, which soon became rife with mismanagement and corruption. The enforced cuts of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Structural Adjustment Programmes by the 1980s further deepened the economic malaise.

Kaunda was widely blamed for the economic crisis and growing indebtedness. In 1991 polls, he and his party were defeated in a landslide by Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). Kaunda, however, became among the first African leaders to step down gracefully following this crushing defeat.

Regional Liberator

Kaunda inhabited a rough neighbourhood in which white colonists and settlers were clinging to increasingly anachronistic albinocracies. He took over leadership of Southern Africa’s Frontline States from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, providing tremendous support to liberation movements from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique. Land-locked Zambia sacrificed much blood and treasure in these struggles, and only in 1976 did the building by China of the Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) railway provide a secure route for its copper exports.

South Africa’s ANC had its headquarters in Lusaka. Kaunda, however, sometimes restricted its activities for fear of provoking a military response from the destructive apartheid regime. After Angola’s independence in 1975, Zambia’s support for a united front of liberation movements strained relations, resulting in the shutting down of the MPLA-supporting ANC’s Radio Freedom broadcasts for 18 months. Kaunda, however, facilitated some of the meetings between the ANC and white business in the 1980s, and consistently pressed P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk to release Nelson Mandela.

Kaunda was often naïve about the willingness of Britain and America to rein in white minority regimes and to support black majority aspirations. His Christian faith made him see the good in not just these powers, but also Ian Smith and John Vorster, both of  whom he met in 1975 in an unsuccessful bid to end the conflicts in Zimbabwe and South Africa. He got on well with the bible-bashing American president, Jimmy Carter, but clashed badly with Britain’s apartheid-supporting premier, Margaret Thatcher

A Legacy of Liberation

Kaunda’s main legacy will clearly be his stellar contributions to the liberation of Southern Africa, which also earned him widespread respect as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. He will be remembered for uniting his country’s 75 ethnic groups, and expanding access to education and health. History will, however, be less kind to his political autocracy and ruinous economic policies.

Kaunda sought to stage a political comeback in 1994, but his petty and vindictive successor Frederick Chiluba – a small man suffering from a “Napoleon complex” – disgracefully used constitutional chicanery and harassment (including five months of house arrest) to exclude Kaunda, absurdly arguing that the Father of the Nation had ruled Zambia for 27 years as a Malawian citizen. Kaunda retired from active politics in 2000, establishing the Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation to fight HIV/AIDS, to which he had lost a son in 1987.

Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, declared Kaunda  “a true African icon”, South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, called him “a great African patriot”, while Namibian president, Hage Geingob, remembered him as “among those extraordinary personalities who told us to get up and fight for our continent.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation in South Africa.