Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president who kept his grip on power for 27 years, died on Thursday at a military hospital in Lusaka, the country’s capital, where he was being treated for pneumonia. He was 97. Authorities declared 21 days of mourning after his death was announced by President Edgar Lungu of Zambia.
Kaunda is being remembered at home and abroad as the patriarch of African independence from white oppression and domination.
Many Africans remember him as one of the frontline leaders on the continent who opposed white rule and brought freedom and dignity to their people. Along with Nelson Mandela of South Africa and other African leaders, Kaunda sponsored Southern Africa’s guerrilla wars and allowed African warriors to stay, train and strategize in Zambia to fight for liberation in their countries.
For many years, Kaunda challenged white-minority governments in South Africa, Namibia and Rhodesia, as well as the Portuguese colonial rule in Angola and Mozambique. He kept Zambia non-aligned during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. For instance, he scolded the Soviet Union for its interventions in Africa and criticized the United States for its war in Vietnam.
He was able to captivate an audience for hours and told many stories, including how his Presbyterian minister father was forced to sit on a plain wooden bench in church while white ministers sat on cushions.
One of his last major public appearances was at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013 where he sang a liberation song the younger generation born after the demise of white rule did not remember and did not sing along with him.
Although Kaunda fought against white domination and oppression, he also became an oppressor to his own people. He banned all political parties except his, claiming that national unity was best achieved through one-party rule, and only left power after 27 years following a crushing defeat.
Still, as The New York Times writes, “many supporters saw him as a minor deity; they chanted, “God in heaven — on earth, Kaunda.”
The Times recalled that “in April 1982, at a meeting in a trailer near South Africa’s border with Botswana, Mr. Kaunda pressed the South African prime minister, P.W. Botha, to release Mr. Mandela, the African National Congress leader, from his long imprisonment. He repeated the plea seven years later while hosting a meeting with South Africa’s new president, F.W. de Klerk. Mr. de Klerk did not respond, though he characterized Mr. Kaunda as “a pleasant man” and “an honest Christian.” Within months, Mr. de Klerk did release Mr. Mandela, who soon flew to Lusaka to meet with fugitive A.N.C. leaders.”