Kaunda, Kenneth 1924–
Kenneth Kaunda 1924–
Former president of Zambia
Kenneth Kaunda served as president of the nation of Zambia from its founding in 1964 until 1991. Most of the years of Kaunda’s leadership were observed under a one-party system that assured him the presidency each time a so-called “election” took place. Recent changes in Africa’s political climate sparked calls for multiparty elections in Zambia, and on October 31, 1991, Kaunda was ousted from his presidency. It is likely, however, that the well-known Kaunda and the members of his United National Independence Party will remain vital forces in Zambian politics and outspoken critics of the new regime.
In an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Rick Lyman noted that since 1964, when Kaunda took the reins of power in Zambia, “his word has been law, his peculiar whims the stuff of public policy.” The reporter added: “Unlike other one-party dictators, who proliferated in Africa after colonialism, Kaunda has developed a reputation for shrewdness, for thoughtfulness, for at least trying to better the lives of his destitute citizens.” Kaunda’s popularity in Zambia began to erode in the 1980s, when plummeting copper prices and deficit spending brought the country to the brink of economic ruin. Still, the transfer of power from a single to a multiparty system has proceeded peacefully in the nation of eight million people, while neighboring countries have been torn by civil wars. Michael Chege, a Ford Foundation researcher based in Zimbabwe, told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Kaunda’s] submitting himself to an election … is probably the most important event thus far in this pro-democratic movement. Whatever happens, it will galvanize and strengthen pro-democracy movements all over Africa.”
Zambia, a country about the size of the states of Texas and West Virginia combined, is located in south central Africa. The nation is landlocked and bordered by eight other countries. Prior to 1964, Zambia was a colony of Great Britain called Northern Rhodesia in honor of nineteenth-century English explorer Cecil Rhodes. English is still the official language, although Zambia has more than seventy distinct tribes, speaking some thirty different African dialects.
Copper, still the principal export and Zambia’s economic mainstay, attracted British colonists to the country at the end of the nineteenth century. For many years the British
Born Kenneth David Kaunda, April 28, 1924, in Nyasaland (now Malawi); son of a Christian missionary teacher; married, wife’s name Betty; children: eight. Education : College graduate; trained as a teacher.
President of Zambia, 1964-91. Opposition leader in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), 1949-64, first as member of African National Congress, then as member of Zambia African National Congress. Founded United National Independence Party (UNIP), 1960, and helped to engineer independence for Zambia in 1964. Implemented one-party government in Zambia, 1973; changed constitution to allow for multi-party elections, 1990. Former president of the Organization for African Unity.
South Africa Company controlled what is now Zambia, sending much of the profits from the copper mining operations back to Great Britain. As was the case elsewhere in Africa, the nonwhite residents began to rebel against the colonial system, forming independence movements that organized strikes, walkouts, and other more militant civil disobedience.
Kaunda was the son of an African missionary teacher. He was born in 1924 in Nyasaland (now Malawi), a country just to the east of Zambia. Trained as a teacher himself, Kaunda spent some of his early years in bush schools, but eventually he moved into the copper-producing area that is now northern Zambia. There he worked in the mines and shared the resentment his fellow workers felt against the British. At that time, much of central Africa was run by minority white rule. Kaunda was one of the brave leaders who set about changing that situation.
In 1949 Kaunda joined the African National Congress (ANC), a supra-tribal party seeking to establish majority rule throughout central and southern Africa. Almost a decade later, in 1958, he broke with the ANC leadership and formed his own party, the Zambia African National Congress. Two years later he formed yet another group, the United National Independence Party (UNIP). These moves did not endear Kaunda to the colonial authorities. Several times in the 1950s he was jailed for his nationalist activities. Lyman wrote of those years: “Living in a tiny, four-room house in a black township on the outskirts of [capital city] Lusaka, Kaunda toured the countryside in a beat-up Land Rover that became the symbol of his movement. In and out of jail, meeting with world leaders, Kaunda offered a message of hope to blacks tired of colonialism and racial subservience.”
Bowing to international pressure, the white government of Northern Rhodesia conceded control of the country to black Africans in 1962. That year a coalition of ANC-UNIP leaders won a national election. On October 24, 1964, Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia, and Kaunda, the leader of the UNIP, was elected the new nation’s first president. Upon his election, Kaunda promised to promote a national philosophy of Christian socialism. He took steps to nationalize the country’s industries and sought to establish Zambia as a bulwark against white imperialism.
Africa Report contributor Guy Arnold noted, “Right from the beginning of his presidency, Kaunda had to contend with the ability of the countries to the south to hurt his new nation economically. At independence in October 1964, a primary task for Zambia was to break free of the economic controls then exercised largely through the great mining houses.” The new president faced such crises as a lack of rail transport to a seaport, the lack of trained black personnel to run the mines, and—more importantly—constant harassment from white governments for his support of other black nationalist movements. Arnold claimed that from independence onward, “Zambia provided constant support for the various liberation movements, and this hospitality made Zambia a prime target for Rhodesian, Portuguese, and then South African destabilization tactics.” The Zambezi River—Zambia’s southern frontier—became “the frontline demarcating independent black Africa from the white-controlled south,” explained Arnold.
With international pressures mounting, Kaunda also faced opposition at home, from such sources as Simon Kapwepwe’s United Progressive Party (UPP) and the followers of nationalist Harry Nkumbula. Beginning in 1968, Kaunda took steps to undermine his opponents’ power, for instance banning the UPP on charges of subversion. In some cases, powerful dissidents were offered positions within the UNIP hierarchy. By the end of 1972, Kaunda had effectively established the UNIP as Zambia’s only legal political party. He explained his motives in Africa Report: “Speaking from my own country’s experience at independence, we were a multiparty state.… Every general election or by-election, we bashed heads across the political divide, and unfortunately we had bodies to bury because of political differences, until … I reached a decision that we must come together and stop this nonsense. Fortunately, we came together and from that time on, it has always been peace. Every election, there is peace.”
Not surprisingly, every election also returned Kaunda to the presidency of Zambia. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, he led the so-called “front line states” in their opposition to apartheid —South Africa’s practice of political, economic, and social oppression along racial lines—and minority rule elsewhere. As president of the Organization for African Unity, Kaunda traveled to Europe and North America seeking support for sanctions against the South African government as well as backing for independence movements in Zimbabwe and Namibia. Kaunda’s success as a diplomat was significant, but his country remained plagued by recession, sparked in part by a fall in worldwide copper prices.
In 1983, a Maclean’s magazine reporter noted that Kaunda’s reputation for international diplomacy enabled him to retain the respect of his own people. The reporter claimed that Kaunda’s “personal philosophy, which combines elements of Christianity, African culture and socialism, has helped him weld Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups into a single cohesive force—a major accomplishment in a continent of conflicting tribal loyalties.”
Disenchantment with Kaunda was widespread even then, however, and it grew as the 1980s progressed. The Zambian economy deteriorated until the nation became one of Africa’s poorest. Kaunda’s efforts to ease government subsidies on foodstuffs led to runaway inflation and food riots in the major cities. As Zambia accumulated a foreign debt in excess of $7 billion, some opposition leaders accused Kaunda and the UNIP of corruption. One of those who leveled the charges was Lieutenant-General Christon Tembo, a former high-ranking Zambian official who was jailed after claiming that Kaunda himself held more than $3 billion in personal Swiss bank accounts.
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lyman maintained that while corruption is a fact of life in Zambian industry, “it is surprising that few charges … are aimed at the president himself.” An unidentified Western diplomat told the reporter that Kaunda has never been perceived as “one of those African leaders who has enriched himself by looting the country’s treasury.” Nevertheless, public support for dissidents such as Tembo and union leader Frederick Chiluba grew in a tide that Kaunda could not stem by nonviolent means. An attempted coup d’etat and widespread rioting in the summer of 1990 led Kaunda to promise that he would reform the nation’s constitution and make possible a multiparty election.
The constitutional reforms were enacted early in 1991, and an election was set for October 31st of that year. Kaunda confidently predicted that he would win, and he toured the country urging voters to support him. “Let us make these people who are now hiding behind empty multiparty slogans and shielding behind false accusations of oppression by UNIP sit down and think what it is like to run a real political party,” he said in one speech, quoted in Africa Report. “I am more than ready to lead UNIP in an election against any party or parties in this country.”
Kaunda lost the closely-supervised election to Frederick Chiluba, leader of both the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and the powerful Zambia Congress of Trade Unions. Chiluba—who has been described in Africa Report as “Zambia’s Lech Walesa”—concentrated on the multiparty issue in his campaign. “No leader, no matter how professional or intelligent, can be the only brain in the country, because there is no human being who is infallible,” Chiluba told Africa Report. “There must be checks and balances built into the system to stop that free rein.”
Checks and balances aside, Chiluba faces a daunting task in Zambia. As Melinda Ham put it in Africa Report, the country is in the midst of a dire economic crisis, with rampant inflation, a complete breakdown in the social welfare structure, and shortages and privations of every sort. “Economists predict that even with a change of government, it will take at least a decade for the economy to recover completely,” Ham wrote. “But as long as the Zambian people’s patience does not run out and the country continues to change government through the ballot box, then there is hope for gradual improvement in the living standards of the long-suffering voters.”
Lyman suggested that President Kaunda’s “reputation for eccentricity,” as well as his autocratic policies, spelled doom for his regime. Nevertheless, the reporter noted that Kaunda did not seek to hold his nation by force but instead abided by the people’s mandate for democracy. Robinson Makayi, editor of Zambia’s independent Weekly Post, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that in 1990, “people went into the streets and started criticizing the president for the first time in their lives. It was impossible to stop this once it started, and it is impossible for us to go back now. People have developed a taste for freedom of speech.”
History will no doubt be kinder to Kaunda than current events might suggest. His individual bravery and leadership helped to establish Zambia as a nation during the twilight of colonial rule, and his international statesmanship has led to reforms even in the last bastion of minority rule, South Africa. Makayi perhaps spoke for most Zambians when he told the Philadelphia Inquirer: “[Kaunda’s] just ruled too long.… He built this demigod status. He controlled everything. But as this went on, it became too much.”
Zambia Shall Be Free, Praeger, 1962.
Letter to My Children, 1973.
Africa South of the Sahara, 1991, Europa, 1990.
Africa Report, March-April, 1990; September-October, 1990; November-December, 1990; July-August, 1991; September-October, 1991.
Maclean’s, November 7, 1983.
New York Times, August 29, 1989; September 25, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 1991; October 24, 1991; November 1, 1991.
Time, September 16, 1985.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Kaunda, Kenneth 1924-
The decolonization decade of the 1960s in Africa produced not only a bevy of territorial successor states, but a crowd of would-be “fathers” of new countries. Most remembered, perhaps, are Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) of Ghana, Julius Nyerere (1922–1999) of Tanzania, and Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905–1993) of Côte d’Ivoire. In the same class, but perhaps less memorable for indiscernible reasons, is Kenneth David Kaunda, who was prime minister and first president of Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) in Central Africa. Kaunda stayed in office for twenty-seven years, peacefully handing over power to an elected successor in 1991. With his country prey to the powerful and white supremacist neighbor, South Africa, painfully dependent on the one major natural resource, copper, and threatened by ethnic strife, Kaunda proved unable to transcend his country’s underdevelopment and vulnerability to division, nevertheless accomplishing the daunting feats of maintaining independence and national integration.
Similar to other emergent civic leaders of his generation, Kaunda was educated in mission schools (his father was a missionary), became a teacher, served on a local council, and plunged into nationalist politics. In 1950 he was secretary of his branch of the Northern Rhodesia African Congress; by 1953 he was secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC). He served a brief term in prison for a political offense, visited Britain as a guest of the anticolonialist Labour Party, and broke with the ANC in 1958. The politics of the era was dominated by the Southern Rhodesian whites and the British government’s attempt to form a Central African Federation. Resistance to federation resulted in another prison term for Kaunda and then to the formation of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) that delivered independence in 1964 to an ultimately unfederated Northern Rhodesia.
Kaunda’s leadership received popular approval, achieving renewal every five years—in 1988 with 95 percent of the vote—until an ignominious defeat in 1991 in an internationally observed contest. In keeping with the political trend of the era, Zambia banned opposition parties in 1968, became a one-party state in 1972, and declared an official ideology called Zambia Humanism, which reflected the “African socialist” fad of the times, as represented by Nkrumah’s Consciencism and Nyerere’s Ujamaa. Like these two well-known African figures, Kaunda published an autobiography (1962), a volume of speeches (1966), and a guide to his own thinking, Humanism in Zambia and a Guide to Its Implementation (1968).
Kaunda’s successor, Frederick Chiluba, treated the country’s founder-president rather shabbily in the postelection period, first attempting to deport him as a “noncitizen” (Kaunda’s father was born in Malawi), then getting the country’s constitution amended to prevent Kaunda from entering the elections of 1996. After accusations of sponsoring a failed coup attempt in 1997, Kaunda retired from politics, devoted himself to good works and his passion for ballroom dancing, and assumed the post of African president-in-residence at Boston University (2002–2004).
Kaunda’s achievements ultimately remain mixed. His writings come across as more diffuse than his contemporaries Nkrumah and Nyerere, although no one doubts Kaunda’s personal integrity. His efforts to negotiate with South African president John Vorster (1915–1983) exposed him to charges of naiveté, although Kaunda was steadfast in providing sanctuary to the (South African) African National Congress in its exile. While avoiding a successful coup—characteristic of West African states in the 1960s and 1970s—Kaunda continually faced sectional and ethnic tensions in the country, despite single-party rule in the 1970s.
As to economic development, Zambia lurched through several programs of rural development and stateled strategies, piling up huge international debts. With copper and cobalt providing 95 percent of the country’s foreign exchange, dramatic drops in international prices from the mid-1970s caused great economic pain, stirring massive opposition among mineworkers, whose union formed the basis of political opposition that ultimately produced the person who ousted Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba.
Kaunda sought help from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the 1980s. One immediate consequence was the fateful maize-meal riots on Zambia’s Copperbelt in December 1986. The Zambian government backtracked; the World Bank and Western governments withheld funds; and inflation, black markets, and internal unrest all ensued. The June 1990 university student protests led to more riots, an announced coup, dancing in the streets, Kaunda contradicting himself on a referendum, and finally a restoration of multiparty government. By 1991 the major opposition party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, swept parliamentary voting and retired Kaunda as president with less than 20 percent of the ballots. Kaunda’s message to his successor included a final contribution to democratic government: “Well, congratulations, you have won… I stand ready to assist you, if you should need my services. For the time being, God bless and goodbye.”
SEE ALSO African National Congress; Anticolonial Movements; Decolonization; Developing Countries; Labour Party (Britain); Liberation Movements; Neocolonialism; Nkrumah, Kwame; Nyerere, Julius; Socialism, African
Kaunda, Kenneth. 1962. Zambia Shall be Free: An Autobiography. London: Heinemann.
Kaunda, Kenneth D. 1968. Humanism in Zambia and a Guide to Its Implementation. Lusaka: Zambia Information Services.
Legum, Colin, ed. 1966. Zambia, Independence and Beyond: The Speeches of Kenneth Kaunda. London: Nelson.