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Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda dies at age 97

Kaunda’s death was announced Thursday evening by Zambian President Edgar Lungu on his Facebook page. Zambia will have 21 days of national mourning, declared Lungu.

By: AP | Lusaka |
June 18, 2021 12:20:03 am
In this Jan. 25, 2015 file photo, former Zambia president Kenneth Kaunda, attends the inauguration ceremony of the Patriotic Front's Edgar Lungu, in Lusaka. (AP photo)

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president and a champion of African nationalism who spearheaded the fights to end white minority rule across southern Africa, has died at the age of 97.

Kaunda’s death was announced Thursday evening by Zambian President Edgar Lungu on his Facebook page. Zambia will have 21 days of national mourning, declared Lungu.

“On behalf of the entire nation and on my own behalf, I pray that the entire Kaunda family is comforted as we mourn our first president and true African icon,” wrote Lungu.

Kaunda’s son, Kamarange, also gave the news of the statesman’s death on Facebook.

“I am sad to inform we have lost Mzee,” Kaunda’s son wrote, using a Swahili term of respect for an elder. “Let’s pray for him.”

Kaunda had been admitted to the hospital on Monday and officials later said he was being treated for pneumonia.

The southern African country is currently battling a surge in COVID-19 cases and Kaunda was admitted to Maina Soko Medical Center, a military hospital which is a center for treating the disease in the capital, Lusaka.

Kaunda came to prominence as a leader of the campaign to end colonial rule of his country, then known as Northern Rhodesia, and was elected the first president of Zambia in 1964.

During his 27-year rule, he gave critical support to armed African nationalist groups that won independence for neighboring countries including Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Outgoing and ebullient, Kaunda lobbied with Western leaders to support majority rule in southern Africa. Famously, he danced with then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a Commonwealth summit in Zambia in 1979. Although he implored her to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa, Thatcher remained a steadfast opponent of those restrictions.

Kaunda was a schoolteacher who became a fiery African nationalist, his country’s first president and fierce advocate of majority rule across Africa. Although he eventually ruled over a one-party state and became authoritarian, Kaunda agreed to return Zambia to multi-party politics and peacefully stepped down from power when he lost elections in 1991. His acceptance of that defeat is widely credited as being crucial in setting Zambia on a path to multi-party democracy.

In Zambia’s heady first years of independence, Kaunda rapidly expanded the country’s education system, establishing primary schools in urban and rural areas and providing all students with books and meals. His government established a university and medical school. Kaunda also expanded Zambia’s health system to serve the Black majority.

Above all, Kaunda played a key role in the struggle against white racist rule in the neighboring country that was then known as Rhodesia and in South Africa. He allowed Zambia to be used as a base for the underground Zimbabwean nationalist groups and South Africa’s outlawed African National Congress.

Genial and persuasive, Kaunda gained respect as a negotiator pressing the case for African nationalism with Western leaders.

Kaunda ultimately conducted negotiations with the South African government, despite domestic opposition, that is credited with helping to bring the apartheid regime to release Nelson Mandela and to allow the African National Congress to operate legally.

He remained lifelong friends with Mandela after the anti-apartheid leader’s release from prison, quipping that they shared the same bond of 27 years — him as Zambia’s president and Mandela in jail.

Even though Zambia was not spared occasionally violent political strife, Kaunda managed to foster peaceful coexistence between Zambia’s 73 ethnic groups.

Kaunda was born in April 1924, the youngest of eight children to a Church of Scotland missionary and teacher. He followed his father’s footsteps into teaching and cut his political teeth in the early 1950s with the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress.

He was imprisoned briefly in 1955 and again in 1959 and upon his release became president of the newly formed United National Independence Party. When Northern Rhodesia became independent from Britain, Kaunda won the first general election in 1964 and became the first president of renamed Zambia.

Becoming more authoritarian over time. Kaunda imposed a one-party state in 1973 and gradually developed a personality cult and clamped down on opposition. He said the one-party state was the only option for Zambia as it faced attacks and subterfuge from white-led South Africa and Rhodesia.

Ruling at the height of the Cold War, Kaunda was a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Kaunda’s popularity waned as the once thriving Zambian economy collapsed when the price of copper, its main export, plummeted in the 1970s. Corruption, mismanagement and the nationalization of foreign-owned companies and mines also contributed to Zambia’s economic decline. Unemployment soared and the standard of living sank during the 1980s, making Zambia one of the world’s poorest countries.

The imposition of austerity measures proposed by the International Monetary Fund and Western creditors, with whom Kaunda had a prickly relationship, led to riots over price hikes and shortages in basic commodities such as maize meal.

Kaunda eventually gave way to domestic protests and international pressure in 1990 and agreed to multiparty elections. He lost the 1991 poll to Frederick Chiluba, and the two men became bitter rivals, with Kaunda dismissing Chiluba and his allies as “little men with little brains.”

Chiluba sought to ban Kaunda, whose parents had been born in neighboring Malawi, from running again in 1996 by a constitutional amendment barring first-generation Zambians from running for president. He also used a 1997 failed coup attempt to place Kaunda under house arrest, despite the latter’s protestations of innocence. Kaunda said he comforted himself while in confinement through music and poetry, and thoughts of the late Princess of Wales, who was killed in a car crash in 1997.

Despite his anti-colonialist struggles, Kaunda was a self-confessed admirer of Queen Elizabeth II and the British royal family. He was also an avid ballroom dancer and loved to play the guitar.

Kaunda was shot and wounded by government forces during a demonstration in 1997 and in 1999 escaped an assassination attempt. He blamed Chiluba’s allies for the November 1999 killing of his son and heir apparent, Wezi. He lost another son, Masyzyo, to AIDS in 1986.

After his retirement from politics, Kaunda campaigned against AIDS, becoming one of the few African leaders to speak up on a continent where it is often taboo. He set up the Kenneth Kaunda Children of Africa Foundation in 2000 and became actively involved in AIDS charity work. He took an AIDS test at the age of 78 in a bid to persuade others to do likewise in a country ravaged by the virus.

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