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


The policy was undermined by the 1973 spike in the oil price and fall in the price of copper, which made up 95% of Zambia’s exports.

The consequent balance of payments crisis led to Zambia having the world’s second highest debt relative to GDP, prompting IMF intervention. Kaunda at first resisted but by 1989 was forced to bow to its demands.

Parastatals were partially privatised, spending was slashed, food subsidies ended, prices rocketed and Kaunda’s support plummeted.

Like many anti-colonial leaders, he’d come to view multi-party democracy as a western concept that fomented conflict and tribalism. This view was encouraged by the 1964 uprising of the Lumpa religious sect.

He banned all parties other than UNIP in 1968 and Zambia officially became a one-party state four years later.

His government became increasingly autocratic and intolerant of dissent, centred on his personality cult. But Kaunda will go down in history as a relatively benign autocrat who avoided the levels of repression and corruption of so many other one-party rulers.

Julius Nyerere, who retired in 1985, tried to persuade his friend to follow suit, but Kaunda pressed on. After surviving a coup attempt in 1990 and following food riots, he reluctantly acceded to the demand for a multi-party election in 1991.

His popularity could not survive the chaos prompted by price rises and was not helped by the revelation that he’d planned to grant more than a quarter of Zambia’s land to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who promised to create a “heaven on earth”).

The trade union leader Frederick Chiluba won in a landslide victory in 1991.

Kaunda won kudos abroad for what was considered to be his gracious response to electoral defeat, but the new government was less magnanimous. It placed him under house arrest after alleging a coup attempt; then declared him stateless when he planned to run in the 1996 election (on the grounds that his father was born in Malawi), which he successfully challenged in court.

He survived an assassination attempt in 1997, getting grazed by a bullet. One of his sons, Wezi, was shot dead outside their home in 1999.

The 1986 AIDS death of another son, Masuzgo, inspired him to campaign around HIV issues far earlier than most, and he stepped this up over the next two decades. After Chiluba’s departure, he returned to favour and became a roving ambassador for Zambia. He reduced his public role following the 2012 death of his wife of 66 years, Betty.

Kaunda will be remembered as a giant of 20th century African nationalism – a leader who, at great cost, gave refuge to revolutionary movements, a relatively benign autocrat who reluctantly introduced democracy to his country and an international diplomat who punched well above his weight in world affairs.

By Gavin Evans for the Conversation


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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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