/ 22 June 2021

Kenneth Kaunda: The man behind the statesman

Diplomacy Africa Kaunda
Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, during his official visit to Sweden in September 1971. (Photo by Stringer/ Pressens Bild/AFP)

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president who recently died aged 97, played a key role in supporting African nationalism. During his 9 860 days in office from 1964, he fought for majority rule of his neighbours, hosting the headquarters of the ANC and Swapo (the liberation movements from South Africa and Namibia respectively) in Lusaka and, after losing elections in 1991, he left office graciously and became a campaigner for HIV and youth.

In 1960 Kaunda took over the leadership of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and it swept to victory in the independence election of 1964, ending Zambia’s legal status as a British protectorate. Almost immediately, Kaunda was confronted by the white Rhodesian rebels’ unilateral declaration of independence on 11 November 1965. Later, independent Zambia became a one-party state under Kaunda, known as KK, who banned all political parties except UNIP in 1972. 

Kaunda ruled Zambia benignly compared with many of his peers, introducing Zambian humanism, influenced by Christian faith and socialism and the Ujamaa project of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere who he much admired. 

Modern Zambian history could have been different if KK had listened to Nyerere in 1985, to follow suit and retire. With an economy badly affected by a collapse in copper prices in 1973, worsened by a clumsy nationalisation project and a failed programme of introducing state-owned farms, Kaunda was becoming increasingly unpopular. Profligate borrowing to compensate resulted in Zambians becoming among the most indebted people per capita in the world. It was no surprise that after surviving a coup attempt in 1990 and following food riots, Kaunda reluctantly acceded to the demand for a multi-party election in 1991 in which he and his UNIP party were defeated. 

KK accepted the result and retired. In an emotive nationwide radio and television broadcast at the time, he said: “You win some, and you lose some elections.” He had already phoned his successor Frederick Chiluba, telling him, “Mr President-elect, the people of Zambia have given you an extremely difficult job. I stand ready to assist you, if you need my services. For the time being, God bless and goodbye.”

Personal connection

My exposure to the Kaunda family started at York University when I studied with one of KK’s sons, Wezi, and he convinced me to visit Zambia in 1988. I also first saw his father in action as Zambian President in Dar es Salaam, dressed in his immaculate Kaunda suit — a safari jacket paired with trousers — and waving in his left hand, as he often did, a white handkerchief. 

A few years later, after his electoral defeat, I first met KK in London in 1992. He was trying to launch a foundation to work for peace, democracy and African development. I had already met his successor Chiluba, who told the meeting I attended that Zambia was the model for democracy in Africa and that everything was up for sale for the right price.

KK, in contrast, described the tightening of democratic space, describing the hostility he and his supporters felt from his successor, including that he had not received his state pension, had struggled to find a house and was under investigation for corruption. This vindictive politics by Chiluba clearly convinced him to return to front-line Zambian politics in 1994, which resulted in his being incarcerated, going on hunger strike and then, after an intervention by Nyerere, being put under house arrest for six months until the case against him was dropped.

During this period, while working for Human Rights Watch, I was regularly in Zambia and got permission from the inspector general of police to visit KK while under house arrest to check on his well being. I was always struck by his frugality. There was no sign of wealth or any extravagance in his home, and I always learned from our discussions — although I was never converted to his cuisine. KK said he had stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, tea and coffee in protest against British colonialism: his last cup of tea was taken in 1954. He had also stopped eating red meat, eggs, chicken and fish. From 1995, KK adopted a vegetarian diet of uncooked food that he credited for his longevity and fitness. 

During my visits he reflected on Zambian politics and current affairs and football. He defended his introduction of a single party, arguing that he had no choice given independent Zambia had been confronted by an immediate hostile neighbour, but that once it became clear that the end of apartheid was irreversible with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 then he knew it was time to step down. Despite the increasing pressure on him, he could have constitutionally continued to rule Zambia for some more years but accepted to hold elections in 1991, having also witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and especially the violent revolution in Romania of 1989 as he had developed close ties with Nicolae Ceaușescu.

He defended his controversial foreign policy choices, especially closing the border with Rhodesia even though it hurt Zambia’s economy far more than it did his neighbour (eventually reopening it in 1973); meeting John Vorster, prime minister of apartheid South Africa in 1975; and the secret talks with Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s white minority leader. His decision to make Zambia the second African country to recognise Biafra has continued to puzzle me, although Igbo groups in Nigeria have expressed their appreciation.

Lasting legacy

What are the lasting legacies of KK? A humanist, who will be remembered for his suits, waving white handkerchiefs, his ballroom dancing, singing his hymns and folk songs and crying in public. He will also be remembered for being a consummate politician with a ruthless streak to neutralise opponents but also able to unite Zambia for much of his rule and project Zambia onto the international stage for three decades. 

From 1994, Kaunda tried to make a political comeback, but he lacked popular support and was blocked when Chiluba forced through constitutional amendments which declared the former “father of the nation” a foreigner because one of his parents came from Malawi. I saw KK in political action at rallies and in 1997, when he and allies were shot at by police, injuring ally Roger Chongwe and one other at a political rally in Kabwe. The police certainly were in the wrong, but its doubtful this was a deliberate assassination attempt on KK although he used his famous hanky caked in mostly Chongwe’s blood to make it look that way. 

Family tragedy also influenced KK. His son Masuzgo died of HIV in 1987, which resulted in the president openly campaigning on the disease at a time when many of his peers saw this as a taboo. And the murder of his third child and political heir, Wezi, in October 1999 had all the hall marks of a political assassination.KK demonstrated his humanism when visiting the convicted gunmen in jail by asking that they should not be additionally punished because they were acting on the orders of others. 

After Wezi ‘s murder, KK withdrew from frontline domestic politics to concentrate on halting the spread of HIV and work with young people through his Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation. He also spent time with his many grandchildren.

He did keep an eye on politics, discreetly supporting Michael Sata’s presidency bid and continued to follow the fortunes of his party UNIP. Earlier this year he endorsed its new leader, Bishop Trevor Mwamba, accepting that for his party to survive it needed to break from being led by the Kaunda family. After decades of decline, it will take time to revitalise, and the August presidential and parliamentary elections are probably too soon.

KK’s legacy is as the founding father of the Zambian nation. He built up its critical human and physical infrastructure, providing universal health and education especially. He was an idealist and a visionary and, although he at times abused his power, rarely with extreme violence and never for corrupt purposes.  He died of pneumonia at the Maina Soko Medical Centre, a military hospital in Lusaka that he had helped to establish. 

Kaunda was always closely supported by his wife, Betty, whom he married in 1946. She died in 2012. They had nine children.