He led an African nation to its independence. He declared as he was assuming leadership of this new nation that he would “leave no stone unturned” to ensure that other African nations around him also attained their independence from colonial rule.

His name? Kenneth David Kaunda, first president of Zambia. This southern African nation was surrounded by white ruled colonial regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), apartheid ruled South Africa and Namibia, and Portuguese ruled Mozambique and Angola. But he declared on that day of independence for his own nation that this independence was meaningless unless these other countries were freed from the scourge of racism and colonialism.

From then on, President Kaunda never wavered, declaring that the interests of his own country and people were directly tied to the welfare of the oppressed and suffering people of countries still under racist, colonial rule. He held on to this basic principle until the end of his leadership.  Zambians suffered financial hardships because its economy that had been tied to these white ruled countries could not function without him kowtowing to the whims and wishes of the white ruled colonial regimes. BUT he stood his ground. Not only did he support and sponsor the organizations that opposed these colonial regimes, he offered them sanctuary and the means to organize and attack from his country. All the time knowing the consequences that would befall his own citizens who had never bargained for this. Yet, he managed to persuade his own people to exercise patience and support their southern African brothers and sisters to rid themselves of this evil. It is no accident that on being released from 27 years of prison, Nelson Mandela’s first visit outside of South Africa was to Zambia, for talks with President Kaunda.

Zambian Philosophy Humanism

There was a time when men of principle and purpose governed some of these African countries. KK, as Zambians and Africans everywhere fondly called him, was one of them. He governed Zambia on a philosophy called Zambian humanism: that the human person is at the center of all decisions, activities, and laws governing his/her existence; that the human person is not and can never be defined by his/her color, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, or material contribution; that the dignity of the human person teaches us to be considerate to our fellow human beings in all we say and do; that humanism abhors every form of exploitation of other human beings, meaning that economic policies and programs demand hard work, self-reliance and a communal approach to all development programs.

Although his government faltered in managing the country’s economy, leading to widespread economic stagnation over a long period of time, what stands out in KK’s approach to governance is that Zambia lacked the repressive environment that other countries in Africa undergoing similar economic difficulties went through. Zambia, at that time, even though threatened by militarily powerful white ruled regimes to the south and widespread instability elsewhere on the continent remained an oasis of peace and freedom. Zambians could boast of basic human rights being observed in their country, and that people from other African countries under civil war and/or chaos could flee to Zambia for refuge and peace.  All because there was a man at the helm, Kenneth David Kaunda, who said “I place above all, the safety, humanity and protection of all God’s children into these hands that God has given me.”

International Respect

Kaunda’s approach to governing Zambia also earned him abiding respect at the international level. At times, called the “African Gandhi” he attained independence for Zambia using non-violent means but like Gandhi himself Kaunda did not hesitate to urge and support direct confrontation of what he often described as the evil that he saw around him, especially in South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia, Mozambique and Angola. His support for the struggles in those countries was as open as it was direct. On many occasions, it was Zambia that carried the banner of freedom for these countries internationally, at conferences and other venues. Because he was principled, a wide spectrum of international leaders outside of the political world (Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Kwame Toure, and others) welcomed him and were eager to be seen in solidarity with him in the cause of African freedom.

When the hateful sounds of racism in southern Africa finally fell silent with the fall of apartheid in South Africa, Zambians began turning inward and concentrated more on their own economic viability than ‘other’ struggles. After 27 years as President, Kaunda was forced to change the country’s constitution and hold multi-party elections. He lost the elections of 1991 to a labor leader by a landslide and retired from active politics. But even then, this man of principle kept his word. After casting his ballot, in an election he knew he would lose, Kaunda appeared on national television to congratulate his opponent and accept the results. “The true lesson of democracy is to accept the verdict of the people,” he said. “This I will do. . . . I have done my best for Zambia. This is the nature of multiparty politics. You win some, you lose some. It’s not the end of the world.”

 And it wasn’t the end of his world. He lived to a ripe old age of 97. It is said that many Zambians did not really appreciate him until he left office. Only after he had retired did they recognize what he had actually accomplished for them and a grateful southern Africa. When asked on Election Day what he was going to do that day after voting, he told reporters he was going for a round of golf. There are many who would say to him, “Well done KK. Go for as many rounds as you want and for as long as you want!”

One Response to “Kenneth David Kaunda of Zambia: Humanist and Liberation Hero”

  1. Nadine says:

    We need more of these leaders especially in the Middle East where most Arab countries have gone their way and abandoned the plight of the Palestinian people. Thanks for reminding us that such leaders existed and we can hope that someday others will surface.

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