Kenneth Kaunda: The man behind the statesman

As Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda, who has died aged 97, was an idealist and a visionary who played a key role in supporting African nationalism.

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Published 6 July 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 4 minute READ

During his 9,860 days in office from 1964, Kenneth Kaunda fought for majority rule of his neighbours, hosting the headquarters of the ANC and SWAPO in Lusaka and after losing elections in 1991 he left office graciously and became a campaigner for HIV and youth engagement.

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.

Independent Zambia became a one-party state under Kaunda (widely known as KK), who banned all political parties except UNIP in 1972. Nonetheless, Kaunda ruled Zambia benignly compared to many of his peers – introducing Zambian humanism, influenced by Christian faith, socialism, and the Ujamaa project of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere who he much admired.

KK was 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

Modern Zambian history could have been different if KK has listened to Nyerere in 1985 to follow him and retire. With an economy badly impacted by a collapse in copper prices in 1973, worsened by a clumsy nationalization project and a failed programme of introducing state-owned farms, Kaunda was becoming increasingly unpopular.

Profligate borrowing to compensate resulted in on a per-capita basis, Zambians became among the most indebted people 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 roundly defeated.

Gracious in defeat, KK accepted the result and was the first African president to be defeated at the polls and retire gracefully. In an emotive nationwide radio and television broadcast at the time he conceded and stated that, ‘You win some, and you lose some elections’ – he had phoned his successor Frederick Chiluba already telling him ‘Mr president-elect, the people of Zambia have given you an extremely difficult job. I stand ready to assist you if you should need my services. For the time being, God bless and goodbye’.

Remembering a 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 for the first time in 1988. I also first saw his father in action as Zambian president in Dar es Salaam around the same time, dressed in his immaculate ‘Kaunda suit’ – safari jacket paired with trousers – and waving in his left hand, as he often did, a freshly ironed white handkerchief.

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

In contrast, KK described the tightening of democratic space and the hostility he and his supporters felt from his successor, saying 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 frontline Zambian politics in 1994 which resulted in his being incarcerated, going on hunger strike, and then – after an intervention by Julius Nyerere – being put under house arrest for six months until the case against him was eventually dropped.

During this period, while working for Human Right Watch, I was regularly in Zambia and obtained 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. 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 which I shared with him on several occasions.

KK explained to me that he had stopped smoking and drinking alcohol, tea and coffee in protest at British colonialism. His last cup of tea was taken in 1954 and he had also to stopped eating red meat, eggs, chicken, and fish. From 1995, KK adopted a fully vegetarian diet of uncooked food that he credited for his longevity and fitness.

During my visits he reflected on Zambian politics, current affairs, and football. He defended his introduction of a single party, arguing 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, he knew it was time to step down.

Indeed, despite the increasing pressure on him, he could have constitutionally continued to rule Zambia for some years but accepted to hold elections in 1991, having witnessed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and 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 he reopened 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.

The lasting legacies of KK

KK was 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 be remembered for being a consummate politician with a ruthless streak to neutralize opponents but also for being able to unite Zambia for much of his rule and project Zambia onto the international stage for three decades.

He was an idealist and a visionary and, although he at times abused his power, it was rarely with extreme violence and never for corrupt purposes

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 his parents came from Malawi. I was able to see KK in political action at rallies and in 1997, when he and allies were shot at with live ammunition by police injuring ally Roger Chongwe and one other at a political rally in Kabwe. The police certainly were in the wrong, but it is doubtful this was a deliberate assassination attempt on KK – although he did use his famous hanky caked in mostly Chongwe’s blood to make it look that way.

Family tragedy also influenced KK, as his son Masuzgo died of AIDS in 1986 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 beloved third child and political heir Wezi in October 1999 had all the hallmarks of a political assassination. KK demonstrated his humanism when visiting the convicted gunmen in jail by asking that they should not be additionally punished as 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 AIDS and engage with youth through his Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation and enjoying 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.

In 2021, he endorsed its new leader Bishop Trevor Mwamba, accepting that for his party to survive it needed to break from being led from the Kaunda family. But after decades of decline, it will take time to revitalize, and the upcoming August presidential and parliamentary elections are probably too soon.

KK’s biggest legacy is as the founding father of the Zambian nation. He built up its critical human and physical infrastructure, especially in providing universal health and education. He was an idealist and a visionary and, although he at times abused his power, it was 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 (nee Banda), who he married in 1946. She died in 2012 and he is to be laid to rest next to her on 7 July. They had nine children together.

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.