A few weeks ago the former president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda passed away. Although he is not well known outside the English-speaking world, he deserves more than a brief paragraph in the history books.

Kaunda was the leader of the movement that led to the independence of Northern Rhodesia, then a British colony, in 1964, under the name of Zambia. He became the first president and remained so until 1991.

Pressenza looks back at the life of this great figure of the independence generation, who claimed to be a humanist and whose experience, with its light and shade, is worthy of recognition. We interviewed the historian and pan-African activist Amzat Boukari-Yabara, who gives us an account of the most significant moments of his life.

We begin today by looking at Kaunda’s formative and activist years.

Kenneth David Kaunda was born in 1924 in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. What was the intellectual and political background of the young Kaunda?

His parents came from a region in what was then Nyasaland (now Malawi), a fact that was to cause controversy much later. A pastor in the Church of Scotland, his father died when he was still young and he was raised by his mother with his siblings. After studying in Lusaka, he began a teaching career. In the early 1950s, he joined the African National Congress party in Northern Rhodesia led by Harry Nkoumboula.
His activism earned him two months in prison, which only strengthened his resolve. Kaunda imposed self-discipline on himself by giving up drinking and smoking. He travelled to England and then to India, where he almost died of tuberculosis. On his return to Lusaka, he broke away from Nkoumboula and founded his own party, the Zambian National Congress, which in January 1960 became the United National Independence Party (UNIP), a name that summed up the struggle he would wage for the rest of his life.

Kaunda was not the only Zambian leader to fight British colonialism. How did the fight for independence unfold?

In 1953, the South African apartheid regime, which illegally occupied the South West (Namibia), supported the creation of a Federation of Central Africa, combining the British protectorates of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) with the colony of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The Federation had about three hundred thousand settlers who dominated eight million Africans in a territory twice the size of France. The Federal Party of Roy Welensky, Prime Minister of the Federation, was linked to the apartheid regime, which also relied on the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

South African expansionism and British colonialism, both complementary and contradictory, provoked resistance and divisions within African ranks. Nkoumboula accepted the electoral game while Kaunda called for a boycott of the 1958 elections. This was followed by a fierce repression, the banning of his party and Kaunda’s imprisonment for several months. The British then invited him, along with Hastings Banda of Nyasaland and Joshua Nkomo of Southern Rhodesia, to negotiations in London. Each of the three territories was the subject of a small conference and a fourth constitutional conference was held in plenary. The secession in July 1960 of the rich mining province of Katanga, which borders the future Zambia, has consequences. Kaunda accused Nkoumboula of being linked to the ‘president of Katanga’ Moïse Tshombé, who was involved in the assassination of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Since Tshombé is linked to Welensky, Kaunda is also concerned about an alliance between the Rhodesian settlers and their Belgian counterparts in Katanga supported by the powerful multinationals.

To ease the polarised debates between black nationalists and white settlers, London is trying to rely on a moderate liberal party, as well as on a dual-college system and a ‘multiracial’ clause. Neither side believes in this clause, which requires a candidate to obtain at least four hundred votes from voters of a ‘different race’ in order to win. The negotiations were very complex because all the participants rejected the British proposal but for diametrically opposed reasons. Kaunda was reluctant to boycott the elections, but decided to go ahead. Kaunda’s party won fourteen seats against the settlers’ sixteen, with Nkoumboula adding seven seats.

On 24 October 1964 Zambia became independent. Under what conditions did this happen?

After Kaunda’s election victory, a new constitution was promulgated and in 1963 Zambia and Malawi were granted a ‘right of secession’, thereby dissolving the Central African Federation. In January 1964, Kaunda won new elections by a wide margin against Nkoumboula and the settlers. He managed to quell inter-ethnic tensions before proclaiming Zambia’s independence on 24 October 1964. Although Malawi had become independent a little earlier, the white minority in Rhodesia refused to give in. It put Ian Smith in power, who proclaimed the unilateral independence of white Southern Rhodesia in November 1965. It was not until 1980 and the true independence of Zimbabwe that Zambia’s independence was confirmed in a way, as the two countries, which shared a number of infrastructures, had a linked destiny.

Kaunda referred to ‘African humanism’. What did he mean by this term?

Kaunda’s African humanism is a political philosophy that combines traditional African values with a selection of Western and Christian values that are compatible with the Zambian social project. Zambian humanism places the human being above economic and materialistic interests. In addition to the rejection of exploitation, and thus of capitalism, the dimension of charity and equality is strong. The fact that Kaunda himself decided to stop eating meat to protest against the law that obliged blacks to buy meat at different counters from whites is a strong symbol.

A proponent of asceticism and non-violence, inspired by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Kaunda was convinced of the need for spiritual management of politics. For example, in March 1962, fearing that his electoral victory would be repressed, he called for the establishment of a ‘peace brigade’ composed of German, American, Canadian, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian and French personalities such as Abbé Pierre, who were ready to start a ‘peace march’ to put pressure on the white power. Kaunda’s Zambian humanism builds a moral balance of power.

See also:

Kenneth Kaunda, an African humanist who claimed to be a Gandhi – Part II (English translation coming soon)

Kenneth Kaunda, an African humanist who claimed to be a Gandhi – Part III (English translation coming soon)