/ 2 February 2024

Zambia the cradle of liberation of Southern Africa

Oliver Tambo House
History-rich sites such as Oliver Tambo House (above) and Kavalamanja not only deserve to be declared as shared national monuments but also World Heritage Sites. (Joseph Kalimbwe/X)

This is a milestone year for Southern Africa. Zambia is readying for its diamond jubilee and the last to be free was South Africa, now marking its 30th anniversary. Until 1994, conservatives such as Ian Smith and Hendrik Verwoerd subjected Southern Africa to “colonialism of a special kind”. Zambia remained true to the subcontinent’s liberation project and it is important to preserve its liberation heritage for future generations.

Ensconced in the heart of Southern Africa, Zambia epitomises resilience and sacrifice in the continent’s journey to decolonisation. Zambia’s role — along that of Botswana, Tanzania and Lesotho — to support the region’s liberation project is testament to the nation’s support, under Kenneth David Kaunda’s visionary stewardship and the United National Independence Party. The nation’s unwavering solidarity with, and material support for, the oppressed is a defining legacy in Africa’s relentless pursuit of freedom.

A look at the life of KK is a reminder that he believed that Zambia was not free if the rest of the neighbours were not independent. Born 100 years ago, the measured activist-statesman swore by the philosophy and biblical commandments of loving thy neighbour and treating others the way you’d like to be treated. Such an outlook gave rise to the One Zambia, One Nation motto to cultivate unity in a country of more than 70 ethnicities. Soon, it inspired a contagious slogan, Tiyende pamodzi ndi mtima umodzi. That’s Chinyanja for “Let’s move together in unity”, and is the hallmark of the African Union.

Zambia was a sanctuary for freedom fighters from Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Put differently, their route to decolonisation traversed KK-led lands. Lusaka, the epicentre, offered safety to the region’s political activists. It is not by default that the United Nations looked to Zambia as the base for the Institute for Namibia in exile. The fact that the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, Namibia’s Swapo and others had their offices or leaders based in Zambia is voluble. Revolutionaries who lived, trained and worked in Zambia (and Tanzania) included Josina Machel (née Muthemba), former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Namibia’s President Hage Geingob. Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) leader Herbert Chitepo was assassinated in Lusaka in 1975.

The landlocked country’s support transcended mere refuge provision, extending to vital assistance to freedom fighters movements and establishing operational hubs. Oliver Tambo House in Lusaka was among sanctuaries or safe houses for these leaders during their protracted struggle. So was Robert Gabriel Mugabe House at Chalimbana University, the Freedom Camp and Chitepo’s House, bombed by Rhodesian security forces in 1975. Likewise, apartheid Pretoria dispatched cross-border mercenaries who, at the start of their killings in February 50 years ago, assassinated student leader Onkgopotse Tiro (in Gaborone) and uMkhonto weSizwe founder member John Dube (in Lusaka). 

Attacks such as Kavalamanja bombings and Operation Green Leader, both waged by Ian Smith’s regime in 1978 and — in collusion with Pretoria — the Chambeshi Bridge bombings in 1979, underscored the perils faced by Zambia in its support for decolonisation. Those attacks were part of the broader efforts by racist regimes to extend illegitimate minority rule. The attacks went on to claim the lives of Zambian soldiers and civilians alike.

This highlights the steep price the host nation paid in its relentless fight against oppression. The sacrifices borne by the nation were immense, including unfair diplomatic pressures. Strains on resources and infrastructure posed significant problems to the landlocked nation’s own developmental aspirations.

Against the background of Zambia’s commitment to justice and liberation, the effect of its involvement reverberated across societal domains. Socially, the nation emerged as a symbol of solidarity and Pan-African unity, fostering a profound sense of comradeship among nations united in their quest for independence. In the second place, politically, Zambia’s steadfast support contributed substantially to the eventual downfall of apartheid and colonial regimes. Economically, Zambia faced formidable difficulties caused by sanctions and disruptions meted out by minority-rule regimes and their Western principals  as a form of punishment for the nation’s solidarity with oppressed Southern Africa.

The support offered by Zambia turned it into a paragon of dedication among African states. Its historical significance in those struggles aligns with the Liberation History Agenda of the African Union and the Unesco World Heritage Convention Agenda. The country’s role warrants the advancement of Zambian sites as part of the Southern African Liberation Routes for several compelling reasons:

a. The liberation sites in Zambia hold immense historical significance. They mark critical moments and events in the struggle for freedom as tangible reminders of the sacrifices made and the resilience displayed in that era.

b. These sites represent not only Zambia’s involvement but also the collective efforts of other nations in the emancipation project, symbolising unity, resilience and the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

c. Inclusion in the Southern African Liberation Routes would ensure the preservation and conservation of these sites, as well as educating generations about such history, fostering more appreciation of Africa’s fight for independence.

d. Recognition of these sites within the World Heritage Agenda acknowledges their outstanding universal value, amplifies their importance and facilitates their protection and conservation measures under the World Heritage Convention.

e. Inclusion in the Liberation Routes Agenda fosters regional cooperation and solidarity, sharing of experiences, knowledge and heritage, thus contributing to a sense of unity and common purpose in pursuit of shared values.

Advancing these sites as part of the Liberation Routes aligns with the objectives of the AU and the Unesco World Heritage Convention Agenda. It honours the legacy of the struggle.

Zambia’s contribution to the decolonisation project, under the leadership of KK and his comrades, remains indelible in the annals of African history. The sacrifices made and the unfailing support provided resonate through the fabric of the nation, solidifying its position as an emblem of emancipation and unity. Its legacy of commitment to independence ought to be preserved to inspire generations, embody the unyielding spirit of a nation dedicated to the cause of justice and freedom for all.

Not to keep as a secret the statesman’s contribution in the region’s march to freedom, Zambia is taking its KK tribute to the world. Last year, the Unesco General Conference passed a resolution to approve Zambia’s, among the proposals by member states for the celebration of anniversaries in 2024-25 with which the organisation could be associated. Zambia’s proposal, supported by South Africa and Zimbabwe, is the celebration of 50 years of Kaunda’s contribution to peace in Southern Africa.

To safeguard that part of African history, relevant institutions must collaborate in the name of preservation and documentation. The National Heritage Conservation Commission, alongside the Zambia National Commission for Unesco, is well placed to spearhead that process. Further, history-rich sites such as Oliver Tambo House and Kavalamanja not only deserve to be declared as shared national monuments but also World Heritage Sites. Continued collaboration by members of the regional family will enable our children and grandchildren to appreciate the history and the power of the spirit of ubuntu.

Kagosi Mwamulowe is a director of conservation services under Zambia’s National Heritage Conservation Commission and president of Zambia International Council on Monuments and Sites. He has more than 30 years of experience in heritage management in a number of programmes for Africa’s Site Managers relating to the implementation of the 1972 Unesco World Heritage Convention.