/ 17 June 2021

Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda was the last of Africa’s ‘philosopher kings’

Delegation Of Republic Of Zambia Visits Ussr
Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s “founding father” and first president, has died in a military hospital in Lusaka where he was being treated for pneumonia. (Photo by Vladimir Akimov / Sputnik / Sputnik via AFP)

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s “founding father” and first president, has died in a military hospital in Lusaka where he was being treated for pneumonia. Aged 97, he was the last of the generation of leaders who secured independence for their countries from colonial rule and went on to govern through their own distinctive political and economic philosophies. Like the continent’s other “philosopher kings” — Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Senegal’s Leopold Senghor — Kaunda’s vision for Zambia’s post-colonial future left a profound imprint on society that lasted well beyond his time in power.  

He will be remembered variously as a freedom fighter who supported liberation struggles across Southern Africa, a nation-builder who avoided divide-and-rule politics, a bad economist who presided over decades of decline, a repressive leader who enforced an unpopular one-party state and an elder statesman who peacefully accepted defeat having lost the 1991 general elections. He was all of these things, embodying both strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Yet above all, he is likely to be remembered, against the backdrop of his often corrupt and repressive successors, as a man who was ultimately willing to put the national interest ahead of his own.

The rise to power

Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was born in Chinsali to parents who were teachers; 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 hailed from an area dominated by the Bemba and spoke the Bemba language, and so could effectively mobilise one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. On the other hand, his mixed heritage encouraged him to stay above ethnic politicking and to seek to balance the representation of different groups in his cabinet.

Having initially followed in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, Kaunda resigned in 1951 to become the organising secretary of the Northern Rhodesian ANC in the Northern Province. In time, he became disillusioned with the moderate stance of ANC leader Harry Nkumbula and quit in 1958 to set up the rival Zambian (ZANC). This new political vehicle, which argued for rapid decolonisation, was quickly shut down by the colonial government, and Kaunda was imprisoned for nine months. 

Upon his release, and with a reputation bolstered by the time that he had spent in jail, Kaunda took up the leadership of the United National Independence Party, which had been formed while he was in detention. By pushing a more radical message and developing a strong structure in urban areas along the line of rail, UNIP quickly eclipsed the ANC and so it was Kaunda who emerged as the country’s first Prime Minister and then President following independence in 1964.

Nelson Mandela (L) and Kenneth Kaunda (R) wave to the crowd as they arrive at a mass rally of ANC, at Independent Stadium, 3 March 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 trade unions — which frequently demanded improvements in pay and conditions — international donors, who wanted to see a reduction in government spending, its religious leaders who exerted a strong influence over Zambian hearts and minds, and the country’s different ethnic groups, each of which feared being outmanoeuvred by the others. The multiple compromises this resulted in are well demonstrated by his professed ideology, Zambian humanism, which was leftwing without being explicitly socialist, focused on the struggle for human progress without being “godless”, and was community minded while rejecting the principle of tribalism. 

This was not simply a political manoeuvre — Kaunda really did believe in these things, and was in many ways more of a moderate than his counterparts elsewhere on the continent. 

Yet, in consistently trying to balance these competing pressures, Kaunda risked pleasing no one. He failed to make the country less dependent on copper, but this didn’t stop damaging trade union strikes. Meanwhile, leaders from the Bemba rejected his efforts at ethnic balancing, complaining that they had not been sufficiently rewarded for the prominent role that they played in securing independence. 

As economic conditions worsened, the greatest threat to UNIP was not defeat by the ANC, but rather that a group of Kaunda’s supposed allies would break away to challenge his rule. When his long-time friend and former vice-president, Simon Kapwepwe, left to form the United Progressive Party (UPP), Kaunda realised that a UPP/ANC alliance might defeat UNIP, and so began proceedings to introduce a one-party state in 1972.

Fidel Castro (R), greets Kenneth Kuanda, during the departure of Kuanda at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, 2 June 1989. (Photo by RAFAEL PEREZ / AFP)

Freedom fighter

Kaunda officially justified the one-party state on the basis that it was necessary because the country was at war. This was self-serving, because the real motivation was domestic not international, but it contained an element of truth. Kaunda had offered support to liberation movements in Southern Africa, offering fierce criticism to foreign leaders who supported white minority rule such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, and so feared attacks from apartheid South Africa. 

Zambia also suffered in other ways. When sanctions were placed on Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, it cut off landlocked Zambia from important trading routes, making a challenging economic situation even more difficult. Initially Kaunda and UNIP’s legitimacy as nationalist heroes allowed them to ride this out but, as the economy continued to suffer, popular support ebbed away and the government was increasingly forced to use repression instead of cooptation and persuasion. Some dissidents were beaten and locked up,others fled the country. 

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

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

A leader reborn

This is the point at which most incumbent leaders agreed to reintroduce multiparty politics only to use violence, censorship, and intimidation to manipulate the polls and stay in power. But Kaunda took a different path, and in so doing revived his reputation. UNIP tried to manipulate the elections but without the repression seen in places such as Kenya and Togo. The result was a landslide defeat, after which Kaunda gracefully accepted defeat and congratulated his successor.

That act allows Zambians to remember KK as a leader who twice put the national interest before his own — in the 1960s and in the 1990s. The relatively poor performance of the leaders who succeeded him only served to boost his political rehabilitation. His immediate replacement, Frederick Chiluba, stole hundreds of millions of dollars and tried to use the fact that Kaunda had Malawian ancestry to claim he was not really Zambian and bar him from contesting the 1996 general election. Viewed against the backdrop of current President Edgar Lungu, who stands accused of dividing the country while mishandling the economy and rigging elections, Kaunda’s record appears to be considerably more impressive.  

The memory of Kaunda 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 at first hand his modest lifestyle and lack of pretension. It was a reminder of a less cynical and more idealistic time when leaders were not assumed to be corrupt, arrogant and flashy. As some of those who have taken to social media to share their thoughts on his death have pointed out, it was characteristic of Kaunda that at a time when so many of Africa’s elite fly to the United States or India for medical treatment, he was treated and died in a Zambian hospital.

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