Kaunda showed stature can grow after power

OPINION |

Zambia's founding president, Kenneth Kaunda, died aged 97. [Courtesy]

Kenneth David Kaunda, or KK, died on June 17 at the age of 97 and having outlived many of his agemates as liberators of their countries. He proved that there was productive life after the presidency.

Kaunda was also symbolic of the tragedy of many countries in Africa that fell into the trap of ignoring teaching history in school due to the myth that history was not important in the development of a post-colonial state. He faded from the minds and memories of the Zambians whose life and state he shaped. He was revered by those of independence days, but not the under-40s.

Born in Northern Rhodesia in April 1924, he joined anti-colonial politics in the 1950s opposing the proposal for a Central Africa Federation, landed in jail, and created his own United Independent National Party (UNIP). With his guitar and trademark white handkerchief, he dreamt of every Zambian having eggs and milk for breakfast, wearing shoes and singing ‘Tiyende Pamodzi (let us go together)’.

He helped to transform Northern Rhodesia into the Zambian state in October 1964. He was the youngest head of state and government in the Commonwealth where he pressed Britain to contain white rebels in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. To the right-wing establishment in the West, his attacks on remnants of white settler colonies and his ‘humanism’ rhetoric made him sound ‘communistic’; it was the norm, during the Cold War, to label anyone who differed with the West as communistic.

Zambia is vulnerable because it is landlocked and largely dependent on one mineral, copper, whose pricing is external and marketing was through Rhodesia and South Africa. When Zambia and Tanzania tried to address the transport dependency by accepting Chinese help in building the Tan-Zam railroad, Zambia incurred the wrath of the West, which tended to label anyone who differed with the West as communistic.

Missed chance

As copper prices plummeted, Kaunda’s ability to provide eggs, milk and shoes to Zambians dwindled. Still, he remained in the forefront of supporting liberation movements in Southern Africa. He was also oblivious of the changing geopolitical dynamics that undermined his one-party rule. Unlike his friend in Tanzania, Julius Nyerere who resigned office, Kaunda missed the nuances and was voted out of office in 1991.

Kaunda’s defeat had two consequences; in Kenya and the other in proving that there was positive life after the presidency. In Kenya, power dreamers imagined that each would win the 1992 election because Kaunda had lost in Zambia; they instead lost to President Moi’s political craftiness.

In Zambia, the new young generations eat eggs, drink milk and wear shoes, but do not sing Tiyende Pamodzi. 

Kaunda devoted his energy to fighting HIV in the same way he had fought colonialism. Although insecure President Frederick Chiluba sought to disenfranchise Kaunda through laws and maybe bullets, Kaunda’s statesman stature seemed to increase even as he faded in the minds of new generations.

He was the last of the generation of Africa’s founding fathers, the anti-colonialists who dismantled colonialism, and engineered their own disappearance from national memories by ignoring history.

- Prof Macharia is senior associate, Horn International Institute for strategic studies.

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