Obituary: Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda helped liberate Southern African countries

By Farai Shawn Matiashe
Posted on Thursday, 17 June 2021 22:21, updated on Friday, 18 June 2021 10:13

Zambia's former president Kenneth Kaunda attends the 40th anniversary of independence in Lusaka October 24, 2004, after the government publicly apologized for arresting and jailing him on trumped-up charges in 1997. REUTERS/Salim Henry

Kenneth Kaunda, one of Zambia’s former presidents fondly known as KK, died at the age of 97 on 17 June. A pan-Africanist, Kaunda is being mourned at home and the continent. He will be most remembered for his unwavering support of Southern African nationalism.

“I am sad to inform (members) we have lost Mzee. Let’s pray for him,” his son Kambarage wrote on Kaunda’s Facebook page.

Earlier this week, Kaunda’s office announced in a statement that the former President was not feeling well and had been admitted to a military hospital.

His death quickly went viral on social media, with many honouring the man who “founded Zambia” as the country’s first head of state.

Celebrated legacy

In July 1961, Kaunda organised a protest in Zambia’s Northern Province (what was then called Northern Rhodesia), which became known as the Cha-cha-cha campaign. It was one of civil disobedience and included strikes, setting ablaze key buildings or areas, blocking roads, boycotts and protests in Lusaka and across the country.

He got his inspiration for the protests from India’s Mahatma Gandhi and after visiting Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, US in July 1960.

The campaign was named after the popular dance in the early 1960s, the ‘Cha-cha-cha’, as it signalled how it was time for Britain to ‘face the music’ of Zambian independence.

Also referred to as the “African Gandhi” for his non-violent activism, Kaunda led Northern Rhodesia to independence in October 1964.

With the country renamed Zambia, a derivative from the Zambezi River, KK became the first president of the new and free country.

His rule spanned nearly three decades until he stepped down after losing an election in 1991.

Kaunda’s role in the liberation of other African countries

Kaunda played a significant role to ensure other African countries also gained their independence from the European colonialists.

His regime allowed liberation movements from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to establish military bases, training camps, refugee centres and administrative offices in Zambia.

He is the man who was dedicated to liberating South Africa and Zimbabwe, which was then Rhodesia. He is the man who could unite all the forces on his land.

He denounced apartheid in South Africa.

“He is the man who was dedicated to liberating South Africa and Zimbabwe, which was then Rhodesia. He is the man who could unite all the forces on his land,” Isaac Mabuka, Zimbabwe African People’s Union’s acting president and a former liberation fighter, who was among those housed by Zambia during the country’s liberation struggle, tells The Africa Report.

“He is the man who was a leader of a frontline state before all other states could call themselves the frontline, even before the independence of Mozambique. He is one of those men who gave the life of his people for the liberation of Zimbabwe.”

Mabuka adds that Kaunda sacrificed the economy of his country to liberate other Africa countries.

“I remember when his country was under sanctions. There was not even food. He was prepared to share the food for his people with thousands of Zimbabweans who had crossed to his country,”

This shows that democracy is not an alien thing in Southern Africa as in 1991 Kaunda relinquished power.

He adds how the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army had several training camps in Zambia.

Rhodesian forces raided the camps in Zambia, killing innocent Zambians in a bid to discourage Kaunda from housing the anti-colonial fighters.

No Nobel Peace Prize for anti-apartheid role

For Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa, Zambian historian and lecturer in African history at the University of Zambia, the country does not get the credit it deserves for its fight against apartheid.

“In South African textbooks, for example, Zambia’s role is often overlooked because there is a tendency to emphasise internal resistance to apartheid. This risks distorting history”, says Sishuwa. “As well as serving as the long-time base for the African National Congress – hosting many of its leaders such as Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma – Zambia also led the diplomatic offensive on the international stage against apartheid South Africa, the continued imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the preservation of white minority rule in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.”

At the centre of all these efforts was Kaunda, who Sishuwa believes should have received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the liberation of southern Africa. “Kaunda was not a saint but he was far more deserving than many other people who have received the prize, such as F.W de Klerk in South Africa”.

Post-independence Zambia

But the economy of Kaunda’s landlocked country deteriorated during his reign.

It has large copper deposits, and Zambia was quite rich. To benefit from this, Kaunda soon nationalised the copper mines.

But through mismanagement, a severe economic crisis took place.

The country also slid into an autocracy shortly after independence.

He believed in a one-party state, with only his United National Independence Party (UNIP) in power. By 1973, the political opposition were banned.

The police and secret service brutalised KK’s opponents and put them in prison.

But by 1991, following calls for a democratic Africa from the international community, KK’s government lifted the ban on the political opposition.

He did, however, step down after losing an election to an opposition party leader, making him the second African leader after Mathieu Kérékou of Benin to allow free multiparty elections and to hand over power peacefully after losing elections.

“When Kaunda lost the elections, he had all the arsenal and resources that could have kept him in power. But he decided to do the right thing and had to hand over power after 27 years,” political analyst Alexander Rusero tells The Africa Report. 

“This shows that democracy is not an alien thing in Southern Africa, as in 1991 Kaunda relinquished power. This is something that other leaders like [Zimbabwe’s former president Robert] Mugabe failed to learn, that despite being a liberation icon. When the masses reject you […], you have to go for the interest of the people.”

The new government after Kaunda began to harass the former president, declaring him a foreigner because both his parents were born in Malawi.

Ensuing protests prevented his deportation, but in 1996 as he was gearing up to run again for presidency, then president Frederick Chiluba amended the constitution: only candidates whose parents were born in Zambia could run for president.

Politically active

Although he could no longer run for the presidency, Kaunda kept up his activist spirit.

He educated people and debunked myths about AIDS after he publicly announced that one of his sons had died from the disease.

KK also continued in politics, especially as a mediator in conflicts in the region, such as in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

His help was much appreciated, as recently as the 2017 crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

“Actually Kaunda was one of the few statesmen who convinced Mugabe to step down in November 2017 during the military coup,” says Rusero. “Kaunda jetted in at the time. Mugabe and Kaunda were peers. They were of the same age. I am sure Kaunda convinced Mugabe to step down.

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