On Kenneth Kaunda

Percy Zvomuya

On 11 November 1965, the Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from imperial Britain. Smith’s decision was designed to head off majority rule. One of his fiercest opponents was Kenneth Kaunda, the president of neighbouring Zambia, which had won independence in 1964. Kaunda, who died of pneumonia last month at the age of 97, stood up for almost thirty years to a formidable alliance of diehard colonial neighbours – the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the British in Rhodesia and the apartheid regime in South Africa – exposing his own country to harsh reprisals from white minority rule. He left office in 1991.

At the time of UDI, Kaunda was especially riled by the British prime minister Harold Wilson’s non-committal speech to the House of Commons in which he all but gave Smith the thumbs up. If any ‘African nationalists’ were thinking in terms of ‘a thunderbolt, hurtling through the sky and destroying their enemy’, Wilson said, ‘a thunderbolt in the shape of the Royal Air Force, let me say this thunderbolt will not be coming’. With the threat of force removed, Smith had no reason not to proceed with UDI and a decisive break with Britain. Kaunda, who had signalled his willingness for British forces to operate from Zambia in a lightning strike against a racist secession from the Commonwealth, thought the Wilson administration had committed ‘one of the greatest blunders any government could make’: from the mid-1960s Zimbabwean freedom fighters began arriving on Zambian soil.

Kaunda also welcomed Namibian, South African and Angolan liberation fighters: the country was a rear base for a broad regional struggle against minority rule, crowded with delegates from the liberation movements and guerrilla armies in the making. On 28 April 1966 a group of Zimbabwean fighters crossed the Zambezi River from Zambia and engaged the Rhodesian army. It was the first encounter between armed nationalists – seven of whom were killed – and the Rhodesian Security Forces. Until that moment, according to Maurice Nyagumbo, a nationalist who spent 11 years in Rhodesian jails, the settlers has assumed that ‘a “kaffir” would never shoot at his white boss.’ In 1968, guerrillas from the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), crossed into Rhodesia en route to South Africa. Among them was Chris Hani, later the head of MK. The ANC president Oliver Tambo and Thomas Nkobi, the party’s representative in Zambia, watched the detachment swim across the Zambezi.

Kaunda’s decision to host liberation movements that were receiving support from the Soviet Union – including arms and military training – came at a cost to Zambia. The presence of large numbers of fighters with weapons marked a steep rise in banditry: a former Zambian minister told me that perimeter walls became a feature of Zambian homes as the wars in the frontline states got underway. At the same time Zambia’s economy came under strain as the price of copper – the country’s main source of revenue – plunged in the 1970s. In 1973 the border with Rhodesia was closed, making it very much harder to get Zambian copper to the sea for export. Kaunda had already made a state visit to China in 1967 – in the face of opposition from both the West and the Soviet Union – and clinched a long-discussed deal according to which the Chinese would build a railway to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s port city, more than a thousand miles away.

Zambia was surrounded by hostile and war-torn states. Malawi, to the east, was led by Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a friend of the apartheid regime; Angola and Mozambique were racked by colonial wars and, after independence, by insurgencies supported by Rhodesia until 1980 and South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Kaunda’s readiness to support opponents of minority rule made his country a target for Rhodesian and South African security forces – including bombing raids – and economic pressure: a burden that Zambians carried with admirable stoicism. Zambia was the first country that Nelson Mandela visited on his release from jail in 1990, a way of acknowledging Kaunda’s hard-earned honour as the godfather of Southern African freedom struggles.

The following year, under pressure from the West to end one-party rule, Kaunda lost an election to the unionist Frederick Chiluba. The economy was battered and Zambians were tired of waiting in queues for basic commodities: Kaunda’s charismatic leadership had run into a cul de sac. Thirty years after he left office, Kaunda remained a spectral figure on the regional stage, attending the funerals of former comrades (Mandela’s in 2013, Robert Mugabe’s in 2019) and the inaugurations of others (Mugabe’s successor Emmerson Mnangagwa in 2017). He was the last surviving symbol of the era of high nationalism in Southern Africa, and now he too is gone.