In the years of decolonisation in the second half of the 20th century, there was something different about politics in the developing world. Alliances and diplomacy were conducted, in however limited a manner, on the basis of morality and solidarity. Kenneth Kaunda (KK), Zambia’s founding president who died at 97 earlier this week, was one of the last vestiges of the class of leaders who represented that time. Like so many heroes of the anti-colonial struggle, his sheen was dimmed somewhat during his time in office. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he managed to redeem himself to a great extent.
KK, a school teacher who fought for the end of colonialism and white rule in Northern Rhodesia, was elected the first president of independent Zambia in 1964. Despite occasional social strife, he managed to engender a great degree of cohesion among the over 70 tribes that make up the diverse social tapestry in Zambia. KK was also a champion of non-alignment and pan-Africanism. His government supported anti-imperialist struggles and movements against rule by white minorities in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. Yet, in his own country, KK took a turn towards authoritarianism and moved towards a one-party state.
KK’s legacy could have been a familiar story, of a once-great leader corrupted by power. But in 1991, when he lost the election he had agreed to conduct to move Zambia back to multi-party democracy, he stepped aside peacefully, respecting the mandate of his people. And while his record in office, particularly on the economic front, may have been patchy, he remains an icon. Across Africa and beyond, his was a voice raised for the oppressed. In an age where the self-interest of nation-states, “realpolitik” as it is known, is the governing principle in international relations, the moral stands KK took are worth remembering.