Kenneth Kaunda: the last of the first

Zambia's leader was the last survivor among Africa's founding fathers

MIDWAY THROUGH WRITING this week’s post - initially on the re-appearance of de gouden koets, the Dutch royals’ ceremonial carriage, in a new display at the Rijksmuseum - the Volkskrant website brought news of the death of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president. At 97, he was the last man standing among his generation of Africa's independence leaders. 

Divided opinion over the ever-controversial golden carriage, complete with its decorative panel depicting servile natives saluting colonial power, seemed to me to offer a telling index of changing attitudes. But Kaunda, who died in a military hospital in the Zambian capital of Lusaka on June 17, is the better topic: his reputation serves as a lightning rod to reveal other varieties of post-colonial opinion.

For the record, an obituary by Mark Schenkel in Volkskrant covered the main points. A former schoolteacher, KK - as he was known to Zambians - will be remembered for his longevity (in office as in life), his ambivalence to multi-party democracy, the mismanagement of Zambia's copper industry, and his preference for short-sleeved safari suits - ‘a kaunda’.

All that, plus a jovial disposition. No trivial detail, given the extraordinary violence of the blood-soaked independence struggles in sub-Saharan Africa.

KK emerged as the first prime minister of newly created Northern Rhodesia in 1963, after (relatively) cordial negotiations with Whitehall, the colonial power. At independence in 1964 he became president of the renamed Zambia, a small southern African state with a population of 20 million and prodigious reserves of copper and cobalt.

That might have been a recipe for prosperity, not only peace. Copper was to Zambia what diamonds and gold were to South Africa: KK’s new government relied heavily on mining revenues. But after an early boom in commodities, dependence on weak metal prices mired the government in debt and most Zambians in poverty.  

KK stayed too long - 27 years - in the job. After a competitive ballot at independence, he dismantled the multi-party system which (like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere) he blamed for exaggerating and exploiting ethnic and tribal loyalties. Under pressure from US donors, multi-partyism was restored in 1991 when he promptly lost the next election.

KK’s political legacy extends across Zambia’s borders. In neighbouring South Africa, the anti-apartheid struggle - which culminated in a negotiated transition to majority rule in 1994 - was organised from Lusaka, where Kaunda hosted the African National Congress in exile. This solidarity endured bullying and hostilities from Pretoria, allowing the ANC to organise. KK did the same, prior to 1980, for Rhodesia’s guerilla movements, welcoming both Joshua Nkomo of ZAPU and Robert Mugabe of ZANU, architects and arch rivals of the new Zimbabwe.   

He was often described as a creature of the Cold War - although that schism applied in Africa more for reasons of expedience than conviction. In the 1970s and 1980s, African heads of state routinely leveraged displays of loyalty to both sides in return for cash, resources and promises of technical know-how.

KK was a leading exponent of this high political art, deftly maintaining warm relations with both Moscow and Washington. Until 1990, when a failed coup attempt by an army lieutenant came as a profound shock to the veteran president. By then, the Cold War was over and the opportunities from geopolitical posturing soon diminished. 

A year later, he stepped down. The near-synchronicity implies that he didn’t survive the thaw in the Cold War; yet his departure also marked a post-Cold War precedent in Africa: a democratic, peaceful, voluntary transfer of power by the former head of a one-party state after losing at the ballot box.

If KK aspired to a post-presidential role on the international stage, such ambitions were eclipsed by the world’s infatuation with Nelson Mandela, another prisoner-turned-president whose example in South Africa seduced the world’s media. To his longtime allies, Mandela’s celebrity contrasted with their own relative obscurity: several complained that Mandela was exempted from foreigners’ customary scepticism to Africa’s nationalist movements. KK betrayed no sign of such jealousy.

A convivial demeanour served him well. The big smile, shared readily, did not obscure powerful convictions. From the mid-1990s, when other leaders were still reticent about the scale of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa, he found new voice as an advocate and campaigner. The AIDS crisis devastated Zambia and claimed the life of his son Masuzyo.

It was about this time that I met KK at his home in Lusaka.

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A Big Man made modest

In the living room of his modest brick house, KK seemed genuinely pleased to be talking to a British journalist from the Financial Times - a newspaper known to Africa’s nationalists for its long and largely creditable coverage of their struggles. Perhaps the attention was welcome.

Despite occasional deployments as a mediator in regional crises, the media (local and foreign) had only a passing interest in KK’s opinions. A socialist by conviction, his generation was on the wrong side of economic history: KK might be an archetype for a generation of presidents who did too little, too late to diversify Africa's post-colonial economies. 

That is a legacy that Africa’s best students never anticipated. Like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, KK was a thoughtful and gifted scholarship boy, whose formal education followed a syllabus largely written by civil servants in London. In government, each one found himself ill-prepared to navigate the new orthodoxy of global market capitalism - a mission in which none could really believe.

In the course of our conversation, KK betrayed no impulse to defend or justify his legacy. Perhaps he saw no need for that. South Africa had become a democracy, the fabled “rainbow nation” pronounced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But the energies of Africa’s tumultuous democratisation were not spent, and the pan-Africanist dream of continent-wide unity remained fragile.

Zambia’s neighbour, the so-called Democratic Republic of Congo was among Africa’s most volatile states. The political settlement between Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s white farmers was unraveling. At home, Zambians confronted new tensions arising from a contested recent election result. 

KK was not minded to share regrets.

Instead, he offered a measured, quiet critique of Africa’s brisk liberalisation. New forces of competition and dissent had transformed every aspect of Africa’s post-colonial settlement - in politics, the economy and in civil society. For someone frequently blamed for the sluggish pace of Zambia’s reforms, he remained acutely sensitive to the risks - a sceptic. 

This was a time when Lusaka’s best hotels thronged with World Bank officials, despatched to hasten the government’s reluctant privatisation of the loss-making ZCCM. A so-called Super-cycle in commodity markets triggered fresh interest in Africa’s mining sector. Investors from London, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Vancouver talked up the case for an African renaissance. 

In Zambia, it didn’t turn out that way. The promise of that feverish epoch never came to pass. Anglo-American, the South African mining colossus which (in a previous incarnation) had surrendered its Zambian assets for nationalisation in the 1970s, was among a (very) short list of potential bidders for the remnants of ZCCM’s reserves on the Copperbelt. The irony of returning the mines to their former owners was not lost on KK, but in the event the deal soured.

With the benefit of hindsight, KK’s brilliant and disappointing career seems emblematic of a larger pattern in post-colonial Africa. One of his earliest political acts was to become vegetarian, in protest against the racial segregation he witnessed in the Copperbelt, where Africans were required to queue at a separate counter to purchase meat.

By the time I met him, KK was - I'm told - a vegan. 


Radical charm

His pan-Africanist conviction was combined with a strong attachment, characteristic of his generation, to the League of Nations - precursor to the United Nations - and the ideal of an international system of sovereign states.

Inspired by a visit to the US, where he met Martin Luther King, he launched a programme of civil disobedience in Zambia. He was incarcerated for distributing leaflets, blocking roads and burning buildings.

By 1960, KK had abandoned the country’s relatively unpopular African political parties to become the leader of a new United National Independence Party. In contrast to more “belligerent” anti-colonial figures, KK was known for his charm. Fred Khumalo, the South African photographer, recalled his “good tastes when it came to matters artistic”.

In a vintage photo posted on Facebook, Khumalo captured a memorable image of “Kaunda tickling the ivories while Miriam Zenzi Makeba belts out a song... Larger than life personalities, both of them,” he wrote this week.

KK’s political style chimed with his personality. Like Mugabe - another vegetarian who died in 2019 aged 95 - he spurned alcohol and enjoyed exercise. Both referred to periods of incarceration as a decisive period of radicalisation. But it was in their respective temperaments - most evident in KK's ultimately graceful defeat at the ballot box - that their radicalism diverged. 

KK was still smiling, still dressed in his signature short-sleeved ‘kaunda', when I met him. Unlike countless elusive, unemployed former statesmen, he seemed to have all the time in the world to chat, sipping rooibos tea, in no hurry to escape questions from someone he’d never met before.

Which is a good memory, for me. And justification enough, to my mind, to abandon my post on the Dutch royals’ golden carriage - to remember KK. After all, the stature accorded by historians to Africa’s liberation leaders is another index of post-colonial attitudes.

In Europe, most of us, most of the time, prefer to look away from the grim details and prickling guilt of the recent colonial past. These conversations are rarely productive. But KK’s generation of independence leaders knew better. Optimistically, they detected in their former adversaries a barely concealed longing for reconciliation.

The best - Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu in South Africa, Nyerere in Tanzania, and KK - grasped at this promise. Their attachment to the post-colonial, pan-racial ideal of global justice inspired the world. This, for them, was no abstract dream but a principled and dangerous commitment.

It would be an injustice if that vision were forgotten. A revolutionary’s ready smile is easier to contemplate. Principle can be obscured by charisma - a trait that outsiders may find more palatable: especially, perhaps, in a humbled native son of Africa.


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