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Kenneth Kaunda leaves legacy of stellar contributions to Southern Africa’s liberation

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day: 21 June 2021.

Zambia’s “Founding Father,” Kenneth Kaunda, who recently died in Lusaka 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 led Zambia to independence in 1964, ruling the country for 27 years until 1991.

He 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. The precocious Kenneth attended Lubwa Church of Scotland mission school, before joining the elite Munali secondary school in Lusaka.

Kaunda was jailed in 1955 for disseminating “subversive” literature. Upon his release two years later, he visited Britain and India, the country of his idol, Mahatma Gandhi, whose satyagraha non-violence methods he 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 also visited Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in America. He joined the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in 1960, launching a nation-wide civil disobedience campaign which eventually resulted in Kaunda becoming president of independent Zambia in October 1964.

He inherited a country of four million people that had been ill prepared for independence by British colonialists: Zambia 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 build a university. He was an astute but ruthless politician, establishing a one-party state by 1973. Kaunda routinely won presidential elections unopposed with 80% majorities, clamped down harshly on dissent, and jailed opponents.

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, making 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. Enforced IMF cuts by the 1980s further deepened the economic malaise. In 1991 polls, Kaunda’s UNIP was defeated in a landslide by Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD).

Kaunda provided tremendous support to liberation movements from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, with land-locked Zambia sacrificing much blood and treasure. After Angola’s independence in 1975, Kaunda’s support for a united front of liberations movements resulted in the shutting down of the MPLA-supporting ANC’s Radio Freedom broadcasts for 18 months. Kaunda, however, facilitated meetings between the ANC and white business in the 1980s, and consistently pushed for Nelson Mandela’s release. But he was often naïve about the willingness of Britain and America to rein in Southern Africa’s albinocracies and to support black majority aspirations.

Kaunda’s main legacy will clearly be his stellar contributions to the liberation of Southern Africa. He will also be remembered for uniting his country’s 75 ethnic groups, and expanding access to education and health. He sought to stage a political comeback in 1994, but his vindictive successor Frederick Chiluba – a small man with a “Napoleon complex” – disgracefully used constitutional chicanery and harassment 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”, 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.”

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof adekeye adebajo
Professor Adekeye Adebajo
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