Kenneth Kaunda obituary: Patriarch of African independence

Zambia’s first president dominated the African country’s politics for a generation

Born: April 28th, 1924
Died: June 17th, 2021

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president and a founding patriarch of African independence, who kept his grip on power for 27 years before enduring electoral defeat, an attempted assassination, house arrest and efforts to deport him from the country he had established, died on June 17th in Lusaka, the nation’s capital. He was 97.

His death, at a military hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia, was announced by the president of Zambia, Edgar Lungu. Zambian authorities declared 21 days of mourning.

Kaunda dominated the politics of his southern African country for a generation, beginning in the mid-1960s. He was an impassioned orator who could bring an audience to its feet and to tears; a former schoolteacher who quoted Lincoln and Gandhi; and a physically striking man who brushed his hair to stand at attention so that it added inches to his 6ft stature.


Kaunda outlived many of his peers among the so-called front-line leaders who had sponsored southern Africa’s guerrilla wars, becoming a kind of elder statesman. But in his later years his counsel was rarely sought. Indeed, at the end he seemed something of a throwback to an era of titanic racial and geopolitical struggles of which many younger Africans, born after the demise of white rule, had little memory.

In one of his last major public appearances, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013, Kaunda recalled his own history in the fight to end apartheid, launching into a version of a song that had once been his rallying cry, Tiyende Pamodzi (“let’s go together” or “let’s pull together”). But this time, when he reached the chorus, his listeners did not dutifully sing along, as they had in the past.

“Ah, you have forgotten,” he said wistfully.

Kaunda espoused what he called African humanism, a vague political philosophy of his own devising that extolled private initiative while promoting welfare-state programmes and a spirit of community.

He saw himself as an advocate of the rule of law and democratic principles. Yet in a country of many tribes, he banned all political parties except his own, saying that national unity was best achieved through one-party rule. By and large, Zambians did not object; his popularity remained high despite his many misjudgments in economic policy.

Profound impact

Kaunda made his most profound impact in foreign affairs. He was steadfast in challenging white-minority governments in South Africa, Rhodesia and Namibia, as well as Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique and Angola. In a bipolar cold war world, he kept Zambia resolutely nonaligned: he criticised the United States for its war in Vietnam, and he upbraided the Soviet Union for its interventions in Africa.

Despite western and Soviet objections, he invited China to send tens of thousands of workers to build the roughly 1,160-mile Tan-Zam railroad linking Kapiri Mposhi, north of Lusaka, with the port city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. For Zambia, the rail line was a needed outlet providing relief from the chokeholds on trade applied by the country’s white-ruled neighbours to the south.

At various times he threatened to call for Britain’s suspension from the 49-member British Commonwealth – or even to withdraw his own country – unless London dealt more sternly with its errant colony Rhodesia, which was fighting black nationalist forces, some of them based in Zambia, that were seeking to overthrow its white rulers and rename the country Zimbabwe.

As chairman of black Africa’s front-line states, Kaunda rallied international opinion in support of censuring and imposing economic boycotts on racist regimes close by, and he permitted black nationalist movements from these countries to set up guerrilla bases in Zambia.

For his solidarity with these forces, Zambia endured painful retaliation, militarily and economically. Zambian soil was bombed and raided by Rhodesian and South African forces on missions to root out guerrillas, including many from South Africa’s banned African National Congress. And no country was more economically harmed by Africa’s white-minority regimes than Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s, when Zambians formed long lines to acquire scarce staples.

It did not help that Zambia under Kaunda’s leadership had failed to develop a broad-based economy that might have survived a precipitous fall in the price of copper – its prime source of income – in the 1970s.

Indeed, copper proved an ambiguous blessing. It normally accounted for 90 per cent of the country’s exports, and Zambia had the highest per-capita income on the continent in 1968. But reliance on copper also spelled dependence on seesawing international markets. And Zambia’s political geography – it was a landlocked nation whose crucial economic supply lines led through white-ruled territory – magnified its vulnerability. In what was then Rhodesia, the government of Ian Smith, backed by South Africa, cut off the rail links that had historically carried Zambian copper ore to ocean ports and world markets.

Most of the population – about four million then in a country of 290,000 square miles, larger than Texas – was concentrated along those rail routes, in a narrow corridor in the north called the Copperbelt. As a result, Zambia experienced shortages of everything from mining equipment to corn meal. (By 2020, the population was estimated to be almost 19 million.)

Still, while offering havens to nationalists, Kaunda kept pushing for peace talks and offering to mediate them. He had been the driving force behind the Lusaka Manifesto of 1969, in which the white authorities were offered a choice of negotiated settlements or armed struggle.

In one attempt at conciliation, in 1975, after years of guerrilla war in Rhodesia, Kaunda and leading Zimbabwean nationalists sat across a table from John Vorster, the South African prime minister, and Smith, who had led Rhodesia to break its ties with Britain rather than accept multiracial politics. The table was in the middle of a railroad dining car that, at Smith’s insistence, had been positioned at the midpoint of the Victoria Falls railroad bridge on the border between Zambia and Rhodesia, high above the Zambezi river. In that way, Smith and Vorster remained on the Rhodesian side of the river while Kaunda and the nationalists remained technically in Zambia.

Kaunda tried to charm the other side with a joke or two. But despite the opening pleasantries, the talks collapsed the next day.

Kaunda went on to mediate among contending Zimbabwe nationalist groups in the late 1970s. Having long favoured Joshua Nkomo and his faction, he helped forge the Patriotic Front, an alliance in which Nkomo joined forces with those of his rival, Robert Mugabe. The alliance won international support, paving the way for peace talks that later produced an independent Zimbabwe led by Mugabe.

Championing Mandela

In April 1982, at a meeting in a trailer near South Africa’s border with Botswana, Kaunda pressed the South African prime minister, PW Botha, to release Mandela, the African National Congress leader, from his long imprisonment. He repeated the plea seven years later while hosting a meeting with South Africa’s new president, FW de Klerk. De Klerk did not respond, though he characterised Kaunda as “a pleasant man” and “an honest Christian”.

Within months, de Klerk did release Mandela, who soon flew to Lusaka to meet with fugitive ANC leaders.

The success of the struggles for one-person, one-vote elections in Southern Africa proved to be a Pyrrhic victory for Kaunda. The economic retaliation of Zambia’s neighbours had set off a long and steep decline. With the price of oil rising and that of copper falling, Zambia borrowed so much from the International Monetary Fund that by 1987 it owed more than any other country south of the Sahara. When Kaunda ignored the IMF’s proposal for an austerity programme, other lenders reduced their aid. Zambians began grumbling.

Even more important for Kaunda was the onset of multiparty elections in South Africa, which made it difficult for him to continue to proclaim the superiority of a one-party system. He reluctantly agreed to changes in the constitution that enabled Frederick Chiluba, a union leader, to run against him in a competitive race in 1991. Chiluba won, and Kaunda left the office he had held since 1964.

The electoral transition went smoothly, but what followed did not. Chiluba began depicting his predecessor as a dictator who had ruined the country, blaming him for Zambia’s economic troubles. Offended, Kaunda returned to politics, to run against Chiluba in 1996. But Chiluba was able to block Kaunda’s candidacy in the courts. Then, in 1997, as Kaunda was on his way to a political rally, gunmen fired into his car, wounding him – a bullet grazed his forehead – and a party worker. Kaunda told reporters that he had been warned that those in power had marked him for assassination.

Later that same year, several junior officers set off a three-hour disturbance that the government accused Kaunda of having ordered as an attempted coup. He was placed under house arrest. The charges were dropped several months later, but in March 1999, Zambia’s highest court, ruling in a case that had been brought by Chiluba’s government under nationality laws introduced in 1996, stripped Kaunda of his citizenship, saying he was not entitled to it because his parents had been born in Nyasaland, a British protectorate that is now Malawi. The authorities threatened to deport him.

Their threat was ultimately not carried out, but the court ruling effectively excluded Kaunda from contesting further presidential elections, which were limited to citizens whose parents had been born within Zambia’s frontiers.

His travails did not end there.

In November that year, four gunmen shot and killed his 47-year-old son, Wezi, in the driveway of his home in Lusaka. The younger Kaunda, a retired army major, had been a rising figure in his father’s opposition United National Independence Party. The authorities described the episode as a carjacking, but many suspected assassination.

A lion flees

Kenneth David Kaunda was born on April 28th, 1924, at a Church of Scotland mission in the northern part of what was then Northern Rhodesia. His father, David, had been ordained in the church and worked at the mission as a teacher. His mother, Helen (Nyirenda) Kaunda, had been one of the first African teachers in the region.

Kenneth, the youngest of six children to survive childbirth, was born in the 20th year of his parents’ marriage. They nicknamed him Buchizya, or “unexpected one”.

Kenneth Kaunda became a teacher and a school headmaster and worked as a welfare officer at the giant Nchanga copper mine. He often travelled around the country on his bicycle with his guitar strapped to his back, stopping to sing hymns and discuss politics with tribal chiefs and others, and establishing branches of a black organisation called the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress. On one trip, in 1952, he encountered a lion.

“I must have been about 20 yards from it when I stopped,” he wrote in his book Zambia Shall Be Free (1962). “It continued to stare at me without making the slightest movement. I rang my bicycle bell and shouted, but it stood still and stared at me. I took my cycle pump and hit almost every part of my bicycle, but the animal did not even wink as far as I could see.

“I don’t know why,” he continued, “but all of a sudden I lifted my heavily laden bicycle as if to cross a stream without a bridge and waved it over my head with both my hands. This was too much for the king of beasts; he made one leap and disappeared.”

The story of his intimidating a lion spread through the country, enhancing his reputation. He drew a following with his speeches against the colour bars of the colonial period. He studied the teachings of Gandhi, accepting his call for nonviolence and asceticism. Already a nondrinker, Kaunda gave up cigarettes and meat. After the white-run Federation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland held an election in 1958, he was arrested and jailed for leading a boycott against it, and his organisation, the Zambia African National Congress, was banned.

In the several months he spent behind bars – the “most difficult months of my life,” Kaunda said, during which he endured malaria, dysentery and other ailments – his commitment to nonviolence grew stronger. “I realised it is no good trying to lead my people to the land of their dreams if I get them killed on the way,” he later told an interviewer.

He had married Betty Banda when he was a schoolteacher. She actively supported his political career and was known to Zambians as Mama Betty. She died in 2012. They had three daughters and six sons.

Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. – The New York Times