Kenneth Kaunda: A Man of his Times

Ruchi Ghanashyam Tuesday 29th June 2021 08:50 EDT

On 17 June 2021, Kenneth David Kaunda, the first President of Zambia, bid adieu to this world after a brief illness.  He was 97. He is survived by thirty grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.  Often described as the man who “founded Zambia”, Kaunda served as president of Zambia from 1964 to 1991. 

The President of Zambia, Edgar Lungu, announced 21 days of national mourning in Zambia.  Kaunda’s mortal remains would be taken in a funeral procession around the country's provinces, with church services in each provincial capital, prior to a state funeral at National Heroes Stadium in Lusaka on 2 July and interment at the Presidential Burial Site on 7 July.

Kaunda participated in the struggle for freedom of the then British colony of Northern Rhodesia, as part of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress. He subsequently became the head of the United National Independence Party (UNIP). In July 1961, he organised a protest in the Northern Province, including strikes, setting ablaze key buildings or areas, blocking roads, boycotts and protests in Lusaka and across the country.  Kaunda was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement as also by Martin Luther King Jr.

Following independence, Kaunda set about bringing unity to his country. Blessed with abundant mineral deposits, fertile lands and richly endowed with copper, the Zambian economy flourished, especially during a good market. A few years into his presidency, Kaunda initiated reforms to bring Zambia's foreign-owned corporations under national control, with a number of mining corporations being nationalised during the years that followed. The Zambian economy received a setback in 1973, when a combination of rising oil and falling copper prices reduced the national income, leading Zambia into debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As crisis management replaced long-term planning, the attempted economic reforms of the 1980s further aided Zambia's decline. Forced into negotiations with the IMF, Kaunda resorted to partial privatisation of the state-owned corporations in 1990. It is said that the country's economic woes contributed to his fall from power.

Kaunda ran a somewhat paternalistic state with authoritarian tendencies.  In 1968, following electoral violence, he banned all political parties except his own UNIP. As the leader of the only recognised political party, Kaunda was the sole presidential candidate in three elections. Multi-party elections took place in 1991, perhaps under international pressure in a world that saw a resurgence of democratic sentiment after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Frederick Chiluba, the leader of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, ousted Kaunda in the elections. Kaunda accepted the election results with dignity and stepped away from power.

On 4 June 1998, Kaunda resigned as leader of the United National Independence Party and retired from politics. His post-retirement years weren’t all peaceful. He was briefly stripped of his Zambian citizenship in 1999, though the decision was overturned the following year. He was involved in various charitable organisations in his retirement years. Perhaps most notable was his zeal in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. One of Kaunda's children had succumbed to HIV in the 1980s. He made efforts to fight the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, even getting himself tested for AIDS publicly and asking all political leaders to do so too.  He also worked for peace in  Africa after his retirement and acted as a mediator on some occasions. 

Kaunda was a staunch pan-Africanist. He will be most remembered for his unwavering support of Southern African nationalism and the significant role he played towards ensuring the independence of other African countries. Zambia provided sanctuary to many African National Congress (ANC) leaders when they went into exile. He allowed liberation movements from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to establish military bases, training camps, refugee centres and administrative offices in Zambia. Being a landlocked country, Zambia was surrounded by countries under colonial rule or white minority power. Even seaports and their access routes were under the control of these powers. Zambia’s support to the struggle of other countries in Southern Africa was, thus, at the expense of the Zambian economy and people. 

Keneth Kaunda’s peaceful handover of power following his defeat was a strong political signal to other authoritarian regimes in Africa. Some believe that Kaunda was one of the few statesmen who convinced President Mugabe to step down in Zimbabwe in November 2017.

Kaunda is also sometimes referred to as the “African Gandhi” for his non-violent activism and resort to civil disobedience during the Zambian freedom movement. He was awarded the 2012 Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Peace and Reconciliation by the Gandhi Development Trust (GDT) in South Africa, headed by Gandhi's granddaughter Ela Gandhi. Accepting the award, Kaunda said, "My colleagues and I who were involved in the freedom struggle, remained faithful to the Gandhian teachings".

Kenneth Kaunda was always elegantly dressed in a safari suit. In sub-Saharan Africa, the safari suit is often called a "Kaunda suit". He was devoted to sports and is remembered for encouraging sports and sportsmen during his presidency. 

Kaunda loved music. As an activist fighting for his country’s independence, he wrote music about the independence he hoped to achieve. The song is popularly sung by Zambians, "Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umo" meaning "Let's walk together with one heart", is described as the unofficial national song of Zambia.

Kenneth Kaunda was one of the last of the generation of African leaders who fought for African freedom from colonialism.  In India, Kaunda will be remembered as a good friend of India and of the Indian people. 

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