Zambian Kenneth Kaunda was the last of Africa’s “philosophical kings”


Kenneth Kaunda, the “founding father” and first president of Zambia, died in a military hospital in Lusaka where he was being treated for pneumonia. The 97-year-old was the last of a generation of rulers who won their country’s independence from colonial rule and continued to rule according to their own distinct political and economic philosophies. Like the continent’s other “philosophical kings” – Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah, Kenyan Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzanian Julius Nyerere, Senegalese Leopold Senghor – Kaunda’s vision for Zambia’s post-colonial future has left its mark. deep on the company that lasted well beyond his tenure.

He will be remembered differently from a freedom fighter who supported liberation struggles across southern Africa, from a nation builder who avoided divide and rule politics, from a bad economist who presided over decades of decline, from a repressive leader who imposed an unpopular single party. the state and an older statesman who peacefully accepted defeat after losing the 1991 general election. He was all of these things, embodying both strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. But above all, he will probably be remembered, against the backdrop of his often corrupt and repressive successors, as a man who was finally ready to put the national interest ahead of his own.

The rise in power

Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was born in Chinsali to teaching parents; and, significantly, to a father who came from what is now Malawi. This gave Kaunda a distinctive position in Zambian political life. On the one hand, he was from a region dominated by the Bemba and spoke the Bemba language, and could thus effectively mobilize one of the largest ethnic groups in the country. On the other hand, his mixed heritage encouraged him to stay above ethnic politics and seek to balance the representation of different groups in his cabinet.

After first following in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, Kaunda resigned in 1951 to become the organizing secretary of the ANC of Northern Rhodesia in the Northern Province. Over time, he became disillusioned with the moderate position of ANC leader Harry Nkumbula and resigned in 1958 to create the Zambian rival (ZANC). This new political vehicle, which called for rapid decolonization, was quickly shut down by the colonial government and Kaunda was jailed for nine months.

Upon his release, and with a reputation bolstered by his time in prison, Kaunda took over as leader of the United Party for National Independence, which had been formed while in detention. By pushing a more radical message and developing a strong structure in the urban areas along the railway line, UNIP quickly eclipsed the ANC and it was therefore Kaunda who became the first prime minister and then president of the country afterwards. independence in 1964.

Nelson Mandela (L) and Kenneth Kaunda (R) wave to the crowd as they arrive at an ANC mass rally at the Independent Stadium on March 3, 1990 in Lusaka. (Photo by WALTER DHLADHLA / AFP)

Zambian humanist

In power, Kaunda sought to strike a delicate balance by not offending the country’s powerful unions – who frequently demanded improvements in wages and conditions – international donors, who wanted to see cuts in government spending, its religious leaders who exerted a strong influence on Zambian hearts and minds, and the various ethnic groups of the country, each of whom feared to be foiled by the others. The multiple compromises that resulted are well demonstrated by his professed ideology, Zambian humanism, which was left-wing without being explicitly socialist, focused on the struggle for human progress without being “ungodly”, and had a communal spirit while rejecting the principle of tribalism.

It wasn’t just a political maneuver – Kaunda truly believed in these things and was in many ways more moderate than his counterparts elsewhere on the continent.

Yet by constantly trying to balance these competing pressures, Kaunda risked not appealing to anyone. He failed to make the country less dependent on copper, but that did not stop hurting union strikes. Meanwhile, Bemba leaders have rejected his efforts at ethnic balance, complaining that they have not been sufficiently rewarded for the leading role they played in gaining independence.

As economic conditions deteriorated, the biggest threat to UNIP was not the defeat of the ANC, but rather that a group of supposed Kaunda allies split up to challenge his regime. When his longtime friend and former vice-president, Simon Kapwepwe, left to form the United Progressive Party (UPP), Kaunda realized that a UPP / ANC alliance could defeat the UNIP, and therefore began steps to introduce a one-party state in 1972.

Fidel Castro (right) greets Kenneth Kuanda on departure from Kuanda to José Marti International Airport in Havana on June 2, 1989. (Photo by RAFAEL PEREZ / AFP)

Freedom fighter

Kaunda officially justified the one-party state on the basis that it was needed because the country was at war. It was selfish, because the real motivation was national and not international, but it contained an element of truth. Kaunda had offered his support to the liberation movements in southern Africa, offering strong criticism to foreign leaders who supported the white minority regime like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and thus feared attacks from apartheid South Africa.

Zambia has suffered in other ways as well. When sanctions were imposed on Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, it cut landlocked Zambia off important trade routes, making the difficult economic situation even more difficult. Initially, Kaunda and UNIP’s legitimacy as nationalist heroes allowed them to overcome this, but, as the economy continued to suffer, popular support waned and the government was increasingly forced to use repression instead of co-option and persuasion. Some dissidents were beaten and locked up, others fled the country.

By the end of the 1980s, Kaunda had run out of ideas, the official structures of UNIP were little more than a fiction, and the one-party state was on borrowed time.

Kenneth Kaunda, during his official visit to Sweden. (Photo by STRINGER / PRESSENS BILD / AFP)

A leader is reborn

It was then that most outgoing leaders agreed to reintroduce the multiparty system only to use violence, censorship and intimidation to manipulate the polls and stay in power. But Kaunda took a different path, and in doing so, rekindled his reputation. The UNIP attempted to manipulate the elections but without the repression seen in places like Kenya and Togo. The result was a crushing defeat, after which Kaunda graciously accepted the defeat and congratulated his successor.

This act allows Zambians to remember KK as a leader who twice put national interest ahead of his own – in the 1960s and 1990s. The relatively poor performance of the leaders who succeeded him have only accelerated its political rehabilitation. His immediate replacement, Frederick Chiluba, stole hundreds of millions of dollars and attempted to use the fact that Kaunda had Malawian ancestors to pretend he was not truly Zambian and prevent him from running in the general election. 1996. Viewed in the context of current President Edgar Lungu, who is accused of dividing the country while abusing the economy and rigging the elections, Kaunda’s record appears to be considerably more impressive.

Kaunda’s memory as a nation builder will also be sustained by the contrast between his manner and the brash style of the contemporary political class. Despite being a national liberation hero, Kaunda never lost his human touch. We interviewed him and saw firsthand his modest lifestyle and unpretentiousness. It was a reminder of a less cynical and more idealistic time when rulers weren’t supposed to be corrupt, arrogant, and flashy. As some of those who took to social media to share their thoughts on her death have pointed out, it was characteristic of Kaunda that at a time when so many African elites traveled to the United States or India to medical treatment, he was treated and died in a Zambian hospital.

When Zambians observe 21 days of national mourning, they will not only mourn KK, but also a lost era of hope, national pride and human dignity.


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