Kenneth Kaunda: the last giant of African nationalism left a mixed legacy


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After returning home, Kaunda campaigned against the British plan for a federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which would increase the powers of white settlers.

He took up politics full-time, learning the ropes through working for the liberal Legislative Council member Sir Stewart Gore-Browne. Soon after, as secretary general of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress, he was jailed for two months with hard labour for distributing “subversive literature”.

After his release he clashed with his organisation’s president, Harry Nkumbula, who took a more conciliatory approach to colonial rule. Kaunda led the breakaway Zambian African National Congress, which was promptly banned. He was jailed for nine months, further boosting his status.

A new movement, the United National Independence Party (UNIP)), chose Kaunda as its leader after his release. He travelled to America and met Martin Luther King. Inspired by King and Mahatma Gandhi, he launched the “Cha-cha-cha” civil disobedience campaign.

In 1962, encouraged by Kaunda’s moves to pacify the white settlers, the British acceded to self-rule, followed by full independence two years later. He emerged as the first Zambian president after UNIP won the election.

One challenge for the newly independent Zambia related to the colonial education system. There were no universities and fewer than half a percent of pupils had completed primary school.

Kaunda introduced a policy of free books and low fees. In 1966 he became the first chancellor of the new University of Zambia. Several other universities and tertiary education facilities followed.

Long after he was ousted as President, Kaunda continued to be warmly received in African capitals because of his role in allowing liberation movements to have bases in Lusaka. This came at considerable economic cost to his country, which also endured military raids from the South Africans and Rhodesians.

At the same time, he joined apartheid South Africa’s hard-line prime minister BJ Vorster in mediating a failed bid for an internal settlement in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1975.

He attempted the same in South West Africa (Namibia), which was then administered by South Africa. But President PW Botha, who succeeded Vorster after his death, showed no interest.

Kaunda helped lead the Non-Aligned Movement, which brought together states that did not align with either the Soviets or the Americans during the Cold War.

He broke bread with anyone who showed an interest in Zambia, including Romania’s Nicolai Ceausescu and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, while also cultivating successive American presidents (having more success with Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan).

He invited China to help build the Tazara Railway and bought 16 MIG-21 fighter jets from the Soviet Union in 1980.

Kaunda’s economic policy was framed by his belief in what he called “African humanism” but also by necessity. He inherited an economy under foreign control and moved to remedy this.

For example, the mines owned by the British South African Company (founded by Cecil John Rhodes) were acquired as a result of colonial conquest in 1890. Kaunda’s threats to nationalise without compensation prompted major concessions from BSAC.

He promoted a planned economy, leading to “development plans” that involved the state’s Industrial Development Corporation acquiring 51% equity in major foreign-owned companies.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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