A Life that Defies Expectations: A Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda at 96

28 April 2020 marked the 96th birthday of Zambia’s founding president, Kenneth Kaunda (informally and affectionately called KK). Born in Lubwa, in what was then called Northern Rhodesia, he was the lastborn son of missionaries from modern-day Malawi. Kenneth Kaunda has lived a life that many admire but very few could have survived. His young years were shaped by the religious piety of his parents, who were the first African missionaries of the Livingstonia Mission of Nyasaland (later called Malawi). Kaunda lost his father when he was 8 and, for some time, the dominant father-figures of his life were missionaries, Maxwell Robertson, Mr McMinn and the village physician Dr Brown. After a career in teaching and a side business in secondhand clothes, Kaunda was drawn to the life of politics because of his keen observation of the injustices to which the colonial edifice had subjected people that looked like him. His rise and success as a politician was an embodiment of “Buchizya” the name that his parents gave him, an expression of the Tumbuka language meaning “the unexpected one.” He has indeed lived a life that defies expectations. It is a daunting task to elide, in the limited scope of a newspaper column, a long life such as Kaunda’s, full of triumph, tragedy and perseverance.

There are some things that set Kaunda apart from other liberation leaders of his generation. While many African nationalists resorted to armed combat for their anti-colonial agitation, Kaunda was bound by deep Christian ethics and Mahatma Gandhi’s example that in the fight against colonialism, non-violence is both morally superior and effective. On a note much closer to home, in his autobiography, Zambia Shall be Free, Kaunda recounts that the only time that his father ever beat him was to admonish him for getting into a fight with a friend; his father’s beating was so severe that Kaunda vowed to never to use violence to resolve disputes. Another fact that keeps Kaunda apart is that while a considerable number of his fellow nationalists envisaged a socialist future for Africa, no doubt prompted by the fact the colonialism was capitalist (indeed its highest form in Kwame Nkrumah’s assessment), Kaunda sought an economic ideology based on humanism, a theory that was inspired by French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. In socialist fashion, however, Kaunda promoted nationalization of certain enterprises. What he rejected about socialism was its contempt for religion. In addition, rather than using non-European ethical standards and instruments to fight colonialism, Kaunda used European standards against European colonialists. In Zambia Shall be Free, he argues that his fight for Africa’s self-determination was an affirmation of the Christian exhortation for justice and the equality of all people and was based on a strict interpretation of democracy as touted by the West. In addition, he referred to the Devonshire Declaration of 1923, which the British had enacted in Kenya. The pith of the Declaration was that, in an event where colonial interests clash with those of the colonized, the interests of the colonized should enjoy precedence. 

Buoyed by these principles and instruments, and ably supported by his comrades, Kaunda managed to get Northern Rhodesia out of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and, at the age of 40, lead his country to independence and christen it the Republic of Zambia. Kaunda’s 27 years as president were eventful and had significance way beyond the Zambian borders. Like Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, he understood that Zambia’s independence was incomplete and in grave danger, as long as the rest of Africa remained under colonial, apartheid or settler domination. His commitment to the liberation struggles of southern Africa and his provision of succour to liberation movements were almost masochistic to his critics. Kaunda was also heavily criticized after instituting a one-party democracy in 1973. His stated reason was that for him to pursue an unfettered crusade for liberation and support for its main actors in southern Africa, he was aware of how opposition leaders within Zambia could turn the citizenry against his efforts by arguing that his priorities were warped. In Adventures in Zambian Politics (2019), former Zambian Vice President, Guy Scott, lends context to this period by suggesting that “Perhaps the time has come to admit that we unjustly thought KK (Kenneth Kaunda) was just hanging on to power like so many of his dubious pals. It was much to our surprise that, when it became unquestionable that the freedom struggle had ended in South Africa, he readily agreed to sign away the one-party state and hold an election. He did this in 1990, the same year that Mandela was released from prison and flew straight to Zambia to visit his exiled colleagues and thank Zambians for their sacrifices.”

Indeed in 1991, Kaunda agreed to have multiparty elections and conceded defeat gracefully when he was voted out power and succeeded by Frederick Chiluba. As we now enjoy the evening of his long life, it is time to reflect on what his life means for Africa. His generation of leaders was committed towards the liberation of Africa and it is thus somewhat understandable that many of them did not neatly transition from being liberation movements to governing parties. However, as Frantz Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.” The tragedy of Zambia has been that those who came after Kaunda embodied many of the vices that they claimed to deplore. Chiluba became an integral contributor to the tide of rampant corruption that was rapidly seeping into almost any cranny of Zambia’s society. Perhaps the ugliest episode of the post-Kaunda era was Chiluba’s mean-spirited amendment of the constitution, disallowing anyone with foreign parents – including Kaunda – from running for president in the 1996 general election. After Kaunda and his party boycotted that election, his troubles were not over. He suffered a raft of persecutions that featured slander, imprisonment on flimsy charges, and even an assassination attempt. 

Kaunda has not only survived these and many other tragedies, but he has also gone on to live a full life and has thus far outlived three, much younger, presidents, that came after him. His has been a life of deep devotion to his Christian beliefs and the country that he helped to found. His brand of politics was a rare combination of idealism, African ethics, Christian integrity and basic humanity. A deeply emotional politician, KK gave up eating meat when he saw African women being manhandled as they tried to buy meat from a window reserved for black people (during colonialism, only white people were allowed to walk into European-owned shops). That sacrifice was matched by his admission that, despite his attachment to his family, “in terms of duties and responsibilities, my first portion of time must always go to the nation.” He said this duty was an inescapable sacrifice by which he was bound. It is with this profound patriotism that Kaunda publicized and practised the intent of the One Zambia, One Nation mantra that enabled him to forge a united nation out of multiple ethnic and linguistic groups. It is partly to his credit that Zambia has never had to battle with civil wars which in many parts of the continent are ignited by ethnic, linguistic or tribal cleavages. 

His life after State House was characterized by his efforts towards the fight against HIV/AIDS. In this endeavour, too, be led by example by announcing to the world that one of his sons had died of HIV/AIDS. This difficult disclosure was emulated by Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in South Africa who also lost sons to a similar fate. After a long time of non-governmental advocacy, it was gratifying that during the late president Michael Sata’s tenure from 2011 to 2014, KK served as Zambia’s roving ambassador, adding statesmanship and much-needed gravitas to Zambia’s standing in Africa and the world.  

At 96, KK is probably taking stock of what his life has been, and Zambians have to start imagining a life without the benefit of his reassuring presence. Being a deeply religious person, Kaunda has for a long time battled with what he terms the most commonly asked question in the entire history of this world: Does anything come after this life? He tackled this question in his poignantly titled book, Letter to My Children. His Christian belief leads him to the inevitable conviction that there is life after death and that life on earth, what he calls “that tiny span of existence between conception and death”, would be devoid of value if, beyond death, there was no “greater and more significant reality.” Without debating the philosophical and theological merits of this argument, what is beyond doubt is the fact that Kaunda’s example and life are etched on the untold numbers of his admirers. While the temptation to make a deity out of people of his ilk is always high, we who are inspired by him should emulate his example and avoid his shortcomings. In his quest to do what he thought was right for humankind, he made economic decisions that were well-intentioned but at variance with the scrupulous world of politics where economic and material results attract more admiration than principle. It is partly because of this that while Kaunda is a humane leader, he does not fit the dour and morally equivocal visage that makes effective, albeit morally dubious, politicians. 

In Letter to My Children, referring to the death of his mother who died at 90, he told his children that “it is foolish to grieve too much over a quiet end to a full and happy life.” While his end will be happy and quiet, it will certainly not be foolish for his admirers to mourn that he will no longer be around. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)

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