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Kenneth Kaunda, Africa's last founding president, dead at 97

19 June 2021

When news first broke on Monday 14 June 2021, that Dr Kenneth David Kaunda had been admitted to Maina Soko military hospital, a leading treatment centre for COVID patients in Lusaka, many Zambians feared that the end was nigh. KK or Super Ken, as he is affectionately known, had grown increasingly frail in recent years and any illness was cause for concern. Even though he had led a long and full life, the announcement of KK's death from pneumonia (not COVID) on Thursday 17 June 2021, was met with great shock and profound sadness. Zambia's first president and a champion for African freedom and unity, was no more.

Kenneth Kaunda was a Family Man

KK was the youngest of eight children born to David and Helen Kaunda on 28 April 1924 in Chinsali district. David was a missionary and teacher who died in 1932. Helen Nyirenda Kaunda raised her six surviving children and made a name for herself as one of the first female African boarding mistresses in then Northern-Eastern Rhodesia. Helen used her voice to challenge racial injustice and the lack of equality during colonial rule, which presumably sowed the political seeds in her youngest son. She remained a prominent figure until her death in 1973.

KK married a fellow teacher called Beatrice Kaweche "Betty" Banda in 1946 and had ten children: Catherine, Panji, Waza, Wezi, Tilyengi, Masuzyo, Kaweche, Musata and fraternal twins, Kambarage and Cheswa. The Kaunda dynasty, like other prominent political families such as the Kennedys, suffered their own share of personal tragedies. Masuzyo died from AIDS at the age of 30 in 1986 and his death inspired KK's lifelong fight against the deadly disease. Wezi was gunned down on 3 November 1999 outside his house, an incident Zambia Police concluded was a violent carjacking but was widely believed to be an assassination as Wezi was KK's heir apparent. Kambarage was sentenced to death by hanging for accidentally shooting a young woman in 1989 but the sentence was controversially overturned at appeal in 1992.

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President Kenneth David Kaunda holds his newly born fraternal twins, Cheswa (left) and Kambarage (right), in 1964. Photo credit: unknown

KK is survived by eight children, about 30 grandchildren and at least 11 great-grandchildren. He became a widower when Betty died at the age of 83 on 18 September 2012 in Harare after 66 years of marriage.

Kenneth Kaunda was a teacher turned freedom fighter

Just like his parents, KK started his career as a teacher and worked across Zambia and in Tanzania. He became active in politics in 1949 after serving as an interpreter and adviser to Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, a member of the Northern Rhodesian Legislative Council. He quit teaching in 1951 to join politics full-time and spent the next thirteen years as a leading freedom fighter who was arrested and jailed multiple times, including a nine-month stint in prison from June 1959.

KK visited the United States of America in 1960 where he met civil rights leaders, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He returned to Zambia and launched a civil disobedience campaign called Cha-cha-cha which was straight out of the Civil Rights playbook by using protests, strikes, blocking of roads and arson.

The British colonialists buckled under pressure and allowed the first elections to be held in 1962, which resulted in an interim coalition government. KK won the decisive elections in January 1964 and became Prime Minister. He became the first President of a newly independent Republic of Zambia, on 24 October 1964.

Kenneth Kaunda became the First President of Zambia

Even though political power had shifted to Zambians, the economy that KK inherited remained largely in the hands of the 70,000 European residents who stayed on after independence. Less than 0.5% of the 3.5m Zambians at independence had attended primary school and there were only 109 native university graduates.

KK embarked on a series of well-intended economic reforms from the late 1960s to Zambianise key sectors such as mining. The economy was heavily dependent on copper which performed well during the 1960s when the Vietnam War drove high demand but left the economy vulnerable to falling copper prices in the 1970s and 1980s. Efforts to diversify the economy to manufacturing and agriculture were largely unsuccessful and added to the country's indebtedness. Zambia's worsening economic situation left the population deeply unhappy and was the main reason KK lost the elections in 1991.

The other major challenge KK faced was uniting a country with 73 different tribal groups. Tribal tension was evident before the 1964 elections and only intensified in the late 1960s. KK tried to address this tension by balancing tribal representation in key government and parastatal posts. He also coined the phrase 'One Zambia, One Nation' to unite Zambian people and encouraged all to walk together (Tiyende Pamodzi). He later replaced the carrot approach with a stick by creating a one-party state in 1972, joining other African countries such as Ghana (became a one-party state in 1964), Tanzania (1965) and Malawi (1966). KK had expressed his intent to move to a one-party state in 1964 but broke a promise to implement the change via consensus and proceeded amidst legal challenges from the opposition. Zambia remained a one-party state until multi-party democracy was reintroduced in December 1990.

Kenneth Kaunda's rule became authoritarian

Zambia nearly joined the list of countries in Africa that have resorted to coups to drive change. KK thwarted one coup in 1980 which he claimed was sponsored by South Africa. KK was left increasingly vulnerable in July 1990 when a drunk 30 year old army lieutenant, Mwamba Luchembe, took over Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation's main station and announced a coup. Luchembe was arrested a few hours later.

KK's authoritarian style was on full display during his regular press conferences, which became legendary. He became increasingly intolerant of questions that he deemed "stupid" and would fire members of his own cabinet on camera while publicly lashing out at their incompetence.

In the end, the Zambian people voted KK out because his governing style became unbearable. Even though Zambians went through the motions of casting their ballots during the elections held between 1973-1990, it was done to preserve the illusion of democracy and cohesion.

Kenneth Kaunda was a champion for African freedom and unity

"President Kaunda devoted himself and the Zambian people to supporting the liberation movements around our region in their quest for independence and freedom.

Steadfast against the intimidation of the apartheid state, he offered Lusaka as the headquarters of the African National Congress in exile...

As the South African nation, we will never be able to repay the debt of gratitude that we owe to President Kaunda.

Nor will we ever forget that it was with the help of this extraordinary leader's acre and solidarity that our freedom and our democracy was won."

Cyril Ramaphosa. President of the Republic of South Africa. 17 June 2021

KK was a key ally in the fight for independence for many countries in Africa. The Africa National Congress HQ was in Zambia and its leader, Oliver Tambo, lived in Lusaka for ten years. The South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), which led the independence fight in Namibia, was also headquartered in Lusaka. KK also supported the liberation movement in Zimbabwe during the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) and hosted the freedom fighter, Joshua Nkomo. He also supported the liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique, which were former Portuguese colonies.

Note: in recognition of KK's contribution to their countries, South Africa and Namibia have declared a period of national mourning of ten and seven days, respectively.

KK's vision of freedom and unity extended beyond Southern Africa. He was part of an exclusive club of African leaders who founded the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963, a date which is celebrated today as 'Africa Day' and was once dubbed 'Africa Freedom Day'. The main aim of the OAU was to end colonialism and neo-colonialism and to encourage economic and political cooperation among member states. KK's reputation as a Pan-Africanist was unquestionable.

Kenneth Kaunda had a tense relationship with the West

KK was respected but not necessarily liked by the West who were instrumental in funding the multi-party movement that ousted him in 1991. KK was not afraid to speak his mind and was probably seen as punching above his political station especially when he bailed on the IMF in 1987 and told the donor community that it was time for Zambia to manage its own affairs.

He considered Zambia a non-aligned country and called out the United States for their handling of the Vietnam War and told the Soviets they were wrong to continue meddling in Angola in 1975. The New York Times journalist, C.L. Sulzberger said of KK:

"Kaunda speaks out with more wisdom and courage than many non-African leaders who try to tell the third world what's good for it.

The President is a man of honor with wide contacts throughout this continent. His words might well be heeded by those across the Atlantic who are sometimes more guided by passion and misinformation than by the level-headed evaluation of the true facts at hand"

C. L. Sulzberger in Kaunda's Plain Talk. New York Times. 31 December 1975.

Kenneth Kaunda was an early and close ally of China

KK established ties with China soon after independence when he travelled to Beijing in 1967 to meet Chairman Mao Zedong. KK was a fierce critic of the apartheid regime in South Africa and an enemy of the Ian Smith-controlled Southern Rhodesia. He needed to find an alternative route to export copper from Zambia and the port of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania was the solution. Chairman Mao agreed to help Zambia build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority line.

"In Europe, they dismissed it as a waste of money. But the Chinese said they would come. China has been very good to us"

Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda reflecting on China-Zambia relations after Chinese president Hu Jintao's visit to Zambia in 2007.

Kaunda became personal friends with Chairman Mao and adopted a similar style of dressing in a safari shirt and trousers that became his signature look. Kaunda remained a staunch defender of China's relationship with Africa till the end, saying:

"China can be a good friend of Africa and a good friend of Zambia if we know what we are doing".

Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda

Kenneth Kaunda's friends included Saddam Hussein

KK's relationship with Chairman Mao would not have unsettled the West as much as his close friendship with Saddam Hussein who was the President of Iraq from 16 July 1979 - 9 April 2003. It is unknown how this friendship started though it was strategic in securing oil supplies for Zambia.

KK visited Iraq in January 1991 to mediate a solution to the Gulf crisis before the US-led Gulf War started. The Daily Telegraph reported a rumour that was circulating in Zambia that Saddam's wife, Sajida, and some of their children, had sought refuge in Zambia and were holed up in one of the presidential holiday resorts. The Zambian government officially denied this rumour.

KK visited Saddam one last time in December 2002 to persuade the Iraqi leader to cooperate with the United Nations inspectors sent to assess the threat of weapons of mass destruction. It was the last time they saw each other. Saddam was captured by American forces on 13 December 2003 and executed on 30 December 2006.

Kenneth Kaunda became an Elderly statesman

KK did the most remarkable thing when the Electoral Commission of Zambia announced that he had lost the 1991 election: he accepted the results and immediately stepped down. A peaceful transition of power from an authoritarian ruler was a rarity in Africa. The act of dignity in defeat and KK's willingness to put the needs of his people way above his own, is what set him on the path of redemption

KK continued to engage in politics during the first decade after leaving office, during which time he was harassed in the same manner that he had treated others, arrested, tried in court and temporarily stripped of his citizenship by the Chiluba government.

He eventually gave up on politics and spent the latter part of his years as a true elder statesman. He was given a prominent speaking role at the funeral of President Nelson Mandela and also attended the funeral of his close friend, President Robert Mugabe in 2019. He continued to fight against HIV/AIDS and also wrote a book called Letter to my children, where he apologised for putting his career before his family's needs.

Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda was the last of a rare breed of leaders that Africa desperately needs today. He served his country, Zambia, and the African continent with honour and dignity. He will be greatly missed. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

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