Kenneth Kaunda, giant of African nationalism, passes at 97

By Lisa Vives

ONE of the giants of 20th century African nationalism, Kenneth Kaunda, former president of Zambia was to many, the gentle giant who pioneered African socialism.

The ‘patriarch of African independence’ passed away June 17 at a military hospital in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. He was 97.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta eulogised him for bravely hosting various liberation groups and he received international kudos for bowing out peacefully after losing an election.

But as there are two sides to every coin, Kaunda was also the authoritarian, who introduced a one-party state. He cut a supply-side deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and he planned to give huge tracts of farmland to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi after he promised to create a ‘heaven on earth.’

The revolutionary, who gave sanctuary to liberation movements, was also a friend of US presidents, recalled Gavin Evans, writing for The Conversation, a newsletter of university scholars and researchers

In a final coup de grace, the government that succeeded him placed him under house arrest after alleging a coup attempt; then declared him stateless when he planned to run in the 1996 election.

He survived an assassination attempt in 1997, getting grazed by a bullet. One of his sons, Wezi, was shot dead outside their home in 1999.

The 1986 AIDS death of another son, Masuzgo, motivated him to campaign around HIV issues far earlier than most, and he stepped this up over the next two decades.

In the obituaries that proliferated after his death, Kaunda was described as an impassioned orator who could bring an audience to its feet and to tears; a schoolteacher who quoted Lincoln and Gandhi; and a physically striking man who brushed his hair to stand at attention so that it added inches to his six-foot-tall stature.

Kenneth David Kaunda was born in Chinsali, Northern Zambia, on Oct. 24 1924. Like many of his generation of African liberation leaders, he came from a family of the mission-educated middle class. He was the youngest among eight children. His father was a Presbyterian missionary-teacher and his mother was the first qualified African woman teacher in the country.

He became a head teacher before his 21st birthday, teaching in the former Tanganyika (Tanzania), where he became a lifelong admirer of future president Julius Nyerere, whose ‘Ujamaa’ brand of African socialism he tried to follow.

As the leader of the United National Independence Party (UNIP)), he travelled to America and met Martin Luther King. Inspired by King and Mahatma Gandhi, he launched the ‘Cha-cha-cha’ civil disobedience campaign.

Although his government became increasingly autocratic and intolerant of dissent, Kaunda will go down in history as a relatively benign autocrat who avoided the levels of repression and corruption of so many other one-party rulers.

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