Kenneth Kaunda, the philosopher king who fell with dignity


Zambia’s first president was an imperfect leader, but his legacy of inclusiveness and African unity lives on in political structures to this day.

Former President of Zambia Dr Kenneth Kaunda (April 28, 1924 – June 17, 2021) at the funeral of Michael Sata. Credit: DOC.

When Zambians go to the polls on August 12, President Edgar Lungu hopes to be re-elected. He was only 35 when Kenneth Kaunda’s 27-year mandate ended in 1991. But, like all presidents since, he bears the marks of the Zambian political formation set up by the country’s first.

In fact, Lungu is the first head of state since Frederick Chiluba, who came to power in 1991, not to have been a member of one of Kaunda’s governments. The homogeneity and inclusiveness of Zambian politics means that the parties are changing names, but they all have a similar genealogy. Zambian politics often boils down to a choice among personalities rather than politicians.

In any case, these policies have not changed in their foundations since independence in 1964. The country depends on copper exports. Ensuring that the monoeconomy works well enough to ensure stability and some prosperity has been the goal of every president.

But a political class in which everyone knows everyone is a byproduct of Kaunda’s humanism, a homemade but largely elaborated social philosophy of inclusion. What Kaunda meant by Humanism fills several books he has written, but it is largely a Christian social democracy that revolves around a fundamental principle of human equality within national unity. constantly spread.

This unity was important as Zambia entered independence as a composite of 72 indigenous ethnic groups – with 72 distinct languages, no dialects – in addition to the White and Indian communities. This became urgent a year after independence when Southern Rhodesia, ruled by a white minority, unilaterally declared independence, with the help and encouragement of apartheid South Africa.

Suddenly, the new Zambia is taken hostage by the white south. All of the region’s transportation routes, first developed by Cecil Rhodes, ran from Zambia south to the sea. The flow of copper to world markets and imports came under economic pressure. administered for racist reasons.

For Kaunda, this posed a huge problem, as inclusion extended to fellow Africans struggling for liberation as well. The president had to run a tightrope in negotiating access to the sea while remaining determined to welcome the liberation groups that established their headquarters in exile in Lusaka. For this reason, the capital of Zambia became the frequent target of white commando raids and air raids as White Rhodesia and White South Africa sought out enemy fighters and took the opportunity to teach Kaunda a lesson.

He was reluctant to learn this lesson. Commentators called it the high price of principles because it meant that the economy was never able to grow. But the Zambian people stoically bore the cost of the struggle against the white states. Clearly 1965 until the 1980s – for although Zimbabwe became majority power in 1980, South Africa was still bound by apartheid until 1994 – almost all consumer goods were in short supply. It was accepted that people would not be at work – even though the job itself was scarce – because they had to search for cooking oil or sugar. Productivity has therefore always been at a low level. Electricity and water were unreliable. Public transport was eccentric at best.

In a way, the country has held on. International observers saw it as the fruits of Kaunda’s wisdom – not to mention the installation of a one-party state in 1972 and the removal of academic unrest in 1971 and 1976, the latter of which resulted in the temporary closure of the university, the imprisonment of student leaders, and the deportation of the white lecturers who had supported them.

China had previously built the Tazara Railway to give Zambia a transport route to the sea that did not depend on the White South, reaching the Indian Ocean at Dar es Salaam instead. It never performed at its intended capacity, but China retained great respect for Kaunda. Chairman Mao delayed the announcement of China’s grand theory of the three worlds – essentially an amalgamation of non-alignment and Chinese leadership – until 1974 to coincide with a visit to Beijing by Kaunda. They wanted to associate the theory with the African “philosopher king”. When Kaunda passed away on June 17, 2021, he was not mourned anywhere outside Zambia as much as in China, where official tributes and newspaper editorials were plentiful.

In his day, Kaunda was hailed as a philosopher king not only by China, but also by many others, including the Fabian wing of the British Labor Party. Kaunda had been influenced by the ideas of moral economy put forward by economic historian RH Tawney and the ideas of the welfare state put forward by theorist Harold Laski. He was also moved by the doctrine of peaceful resistance advanced by Gandhi. Kaunda’s deployment of this approach was presented as a principle in the face of white aggression from the South, but in reality Zambia did not have an armed force that could have offered a battle equal to that of Rhodesia and especially from South Africa. As with most of Kaunda’s principles, it ultimately boiled down to pragmatism.

As the 1980s wore on, this growing one-party pragmatism and authoritarianism became troublesome. The complaint was that Zambia, having sacrificed so much to help Zimbabwe become independent, was now far behind Zimbabwe’s economic dynamism.

But the last straw was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Inspired by the dramatic collapse of a gigantic monolithic state and party regime, university students rose up again in 1990. This time, the population exploded following the example of the students. People everywhere demanded free multiparty elections – although unlike in Berlin and Gdansk, TV crews never came to film entire towns like Kabwe in the streets shouting for Kaunda to step down.

Kaunda played for the time, conceding that multiparty elections should take place, but not until 1991, suggesting that the remainder of 1990 and 1991 should be spent forming new parties. He hoped that the opposition would fragment while maintaining the unity of his own party. But the opposition regrouped into an insurmountable force led by Frederick Chiluba, the trade unionist and leader of the Miners’ Union, the association which essentially controlled the country’s wealth in its copper production.

Two weeks before the elections, Kaunda traveled to the 1991 Commonwealth Summit in neighboring Zimbabwe. He, but also all the other heads of state, were eclipsed by the appearance of Nelson Mandela. I saw Kaunda there. He was visibly pale. It seemed he knew he would return to Zambia to face an electoral defeat. I followed him and observed the elections of October 31st.

After 27 years in power, Kaunda falls. But his demeanor and his dignity while falling suddenly transformed the way Zambians saw him. TV cameras filmed him gracefully escorting new President Chiluba and his wife around the State House, showing off the artwork and meeting rooms – and doing it all with a balance that didn’t seem at all to be part of the bitterness.

Then we saw him come out and walk towards his car. He removed the presidential pennant that hung from the side of his hood, looked at it briefly, then put it in his pocket as a memento. Then asked the driver to take him to his humble non-presidential house.

It was as if nothing suited him so much as leaving office with such dignity. And from that moment until his death, he became the moral and oldest statesman in the country.

I met him again in 2005 in Cambridge. He had come to witness the debate between myself and Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary who chaired the final Zimbabwe independence talks – doing so ruthlessly and causing the discontent of Kaunda as well as that of many leaders. Africans. I reunited the two men and they reconciled 25 years after the Lancaster House talks which, with enormous difficulty, had agreed to independence and an end to white rule in neighboring Zambia. If forgiveness was part of the humanist ethos, that day was in the spotlight.

Kaunda unified the nation, he stood up to the white south, he was honest and open about the AIDS that claimed his own family’s lives, and he finally accepted a dramatic democratic outcome leading to his own overthrow with rare elegance. in Africa. He proposed a philosophy of egalitarian inclusion that survives in political structures to this day. He died at the age of 97. Even at the age of 96, he used a cane to dance in the meetings as if he had all the vigor and all the time in the world.

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