Founding father and President of Zambia, Kenneth David Kaunda (1924-2021) would be remembered as one of those rare revolutionaries that won independence without bloodshed.
Kaunda led with exceptional love for humanity and emotions for his people. Though he was politically imperfect, his foibles forgivable, he remains an icon of nationalism and of courageous leadership that today’s African countries need urgently.
Upon winning independence in 1964 and renaming Northern Rhodesia to Zambia, Kaunda kept his promise of a cosmopolitan country that works for all. He lived simply and in solidarity with the poor. While he resided in a house without dedicated power and running water, he was building roads, houses, schools and clinics in Zambian suburbs for the comfort of the people. And before long, the new Zambia became a land of wealth from the export of copper and respect for all races, colours and religions.
Kaunda was a man of good reasoning and ideas too. And he was never shy of executing even the unpopular ones. KK, as he was also called, invented “Zambian Humanism,” a moral philosophy from an admixture of Christian teachings, socialism and African traditions – for all to live by and in unity. The central theme was the primacy of man and human equality; no fellow should be richer than another, no man should exploit another, each person has value and dignity.
Fallout of his utopia was a weird idea about political opposition in a democracy. He reckoned that tolerance of opposition in a multi-cultural and multi-party democracy could only embolden enemies to undermine his rule and tear the country apart. So, for 26 of his 27 years in power, the strongman-president was hostile to opponents, silenced and imprisoned dissents like Simon Kapwepwe and kept shifting the goal post of the ruling party to prolong his stay in office. With a firm grip on the wheels, Kaunda routinely won presidential elections unopposed with 80 per cent majority.
After years of hesitation, Kaunda’s Zambia submitted to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1989, introduced austerity measures that cut off food supplies to the people. Attendant riots and multi-party elections in 1991 got him booted out of office in a landslide. By then, his stature had diminished with more than 70 per cent of the people living in poverty and the country indebted to the tune of $7 billion.
His legacy of leading from the heart and a rallying force on the continent is also unforgettable. He was committed to the course of a free and prosperous African continent, as Zambia became a refuge for anti-colonial campaigners for decades. Kaunda was a rare optimist that believed in Africa depending on itself to get it right both politically and economically. It is for these reasons that the Zambian President, Edgar Lungu, declared Kaunda “a true African icon,” South Africa’s former President, Thabo Mbeki, called him “a great African patriot,” while Namibian President, Hage Geingob, remembered him as “among those extraordinary personalities who told us to get up and fight for our continent.” From 1991 till he breathed his last on June 17, at 97 years, in a Lusaka hospital, he remained an active statesman and father, once again winning the heart of many Zambians as their icon of the liberation struggle. Kaunda was indeed a man of the people!