OBITUARY: Kenneth Kaunda, a great African icon and patriot

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda has passed away at the age of 97.

In this file photo taken on 17 August 2010, former and first Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda delivers a speech during the closing ceremony of the 30th Southern African Development Community summit in Windhoek, Namibia. Picture: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP

JOHANNESBURG - Kenneth Kaunda played the piano, sang and danced all the way into his nineties, from liberation fighter, to prisoner, to president, to being stateless.

KK, as he was affectionately known - clashed frequently with his successor Frederick Chiluba who attempted to deport him from Zambia – claiming he was a Malawian national.

Kaunda was the youngest of eight children.

His father Reverend David Kaunda was a missionary and teacher, who was born in Nyasaland - now Malawi - and had moved to work at a mission in Zambia.

In an attempt to prevent KK from contesting in the 1996 elections, Chiluba’s government amended the Constitution to bar citizens born of foreign parents from presidential candidacy.

In 1997, Kaunda was accused of orchestrating a coup, arrested and held for five months and subsequently declared stateless.

When the usually clean-shaven Kaunda came out of detention with a white beard, hundreds of people had filled the streets of Lusaka waiting to welcome him.

FILE: Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda (C) is mobbed by supporters on 1 June 1998 as he leaves the Zambian Supreme Court in Lusaka after his release. Picture: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda (C) is mobbed by supporters, 1 June 1998 as he leaves the Zambian Supreme Court in Lusaka after his release. Picture: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

“I said I will not shave until I am told why I was in prison. But I have not been told why I was in prison for 5 months and 7 days. The MMD, the Movement for Mandrax Dealers, the MMD, the Movement for Mass Destruction – all the promises they made about accountability, transparency, good governance, all these things they have forgotten them.”

His Zambian citizenship was reinstated after he approached the Supreme Court in his country.


KK’s life after office was a stark contrast to his early life.

He was only 27 when he left the teaching profession to become regional organiser of the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress. He later served as national secretary general.

In 1955 he and party leader Harry Nkumbula were jailed for two months for distributing what the regime called subversive literature

He said that arrest made him realise that he wanted liberation and black majority rule more than Nkambula, so they drifted apart and he formed the Zambian African National Congress, which was later banned.

“Knowing that you might have to go to prison away from your family, for how long you don’t know, it depends on what was wrong according to your colonial masters. But once you make up your mind that you are determined to go ahead regardless of what happens, you say yes, I am going to do it.”

In 1960, Kaunda was elected leader of the United Democratic Independence Party (UNIP) and when Zambians went to the polls in 1962, he stood as a candidate and became a minister in the coalition government that followed.

Two years later, the country held elections again and UNIP won, making Kaunda prime minister under British rule, and then first president of an independent Zambia when the country gained autonomy in October 1964.


Kaunda will be remembered for many things, including overhauling Zambia’s education system by providing free books and charging parents minimal token school fees, as well as mobilising citizens to contribute towards the construction of the country’s first university.

But he was criticised for amending the Constitution to outlaw all other political parties except his own, leading to a one-party state that some called a legal dictatorship.

He was forced to lift the ban in 1990 amid political unrest

KK’s son, Kaweche Kaunda, recently reflected on his father’s life.

“One thing I remember is that he believed in what he was doing. I remember being in a press conference when I was very young, and he said I will live to see the day when South Africa is a just society, and obviously what he meant is that it will happen in his lifetime.”

That’s the legacy he left on the international front.

Liberation leaders and parties, including Oliver Tambo, Zimbabwe’s Joshua Nkomo and Namibia’s Swapo, built their guerilla camps and trained their fighters in Zambia during his tenure.

“All of us will always remember you as this great African patriot who stood side-by-side with the people of southern Africa,” said former South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo described Kaunda as an African icon “and to the best of my knowledge, the only surviving founding father of Africa at independence”.

Namibian President Hage Geingob said: “You are among those extraordinary personalities who told us to get up and fight for our continent. You hosted all of us in your country. Namibia owes a great deal to you and, in particular, in my case, you nurtured me for 14 years.”

When Kaunda turned 96 in April 2020, his family said he was aware of the COVID-19 pandemic and wished he could spread as much awareness about the virus as he did the Aids pandemic.

The image of KK that will always linger is him running while punching the air with his fists and waving his white handkerchief.

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