Today is a sad day for me, for Zambians and for all the people of the world. We have lost one of the greatest sons of Africa, and the world is poorer for it. When Mandela left South Africa for the first time after 27 years of incarceration, I was delighted and honoured that his first destination outside of South Africa was to Zambia.
It is was a privilege to welcome home a brother I had last seen free in 1962 on his last trip outside of South Africa. At our subsequent meeting in Ethiopia, he and OR Tambo had come to brief us on the ANC’s plans to escalate the struggle for independence, where OR was to lead the struggle from the international front, while Mandela was to lead the domestic struggle.
When I saw him again on this joyous occasion in 1991 I told him that the people of Africa were waiting for him to take up the last mile of the struggle for Africa.
It was a devastating blow to the South African struggle when the apartheid government sent him and my fellow brothers – comrades Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Dennis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni – to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
The struggle for the independence of the frontline states of South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola and Zambia was an African struggle.
The bonds between our nations run deep. When we formed the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress in 1948, and later the Zambian African National Congress, we were not just taking on the name of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, John Dube, Sol Plaatje, Albert Luthuli, OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela’s great African National Congress which was established in 1912, we were affirming our common struggle as Africans for the total liberation of all of Africa from colonial rule. It is a common destiny pronounced by Pixley ka Isaka Seme who urged all at the formation of the ANC in 1911 to “forget all the past differences among Africans and unite in one national organisation”.
Zambia was the home of the ANC for more than a decade. It was a home for all freedom-seeking Africans. As president of Zambia, it was a privilege and a pleasure to make sure that OR Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and the many South African exiles felt at home in Zambia.
At the same time we kept pressure on the apartheid government and provided all means necessary to empower our brothers and sisters to fight for liberation.
While he was in jail, one of the first actions I took when we attained our freedom on October 24, 1964, was to meet with South African leader BJ Vorster and his successors, right up to FW de Klerk, to persuade them to release Mandela and other unlawfully jailed freedom fighters.
We explored all options, asking for African leaders, including Mandela, to be imprisoned in Zambia rather than their homeland. We asked the apartheid government to open up dialogue with the ANC. We intensified the struggle to liberate all of Africa on all fronts.
Mandela thanked me for the role Zambia played under difficult circumstances – and for making persecuted Africans and exiles welcome in Zambia.
It was not necessary.
We did what South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Kenya, Nambia, Tanzania or any other African state would have done had the roles been reversed.
It was a duty we were happy to fulfill. An African brotherly responsibility. It’s what the struggle over colonialism demanded. We responded accordingly with a clear conscience.
Mandela to me was more than a comrade. He was a brother. A brother in the common struggle for a liberated Africa.
Today we are all free to create a better Africa on our terms because of his sacrifice.
Since his freedom I have enjoyed the times we spent reminiscing on the struggle and thinking ahead.
When I endured my own personal trials in my own country, after my retirement, I did not need to call him.
He took it upon himself to use South Africa’s better position to help – not just for me, but for all other African nations that needed it.
Last year when I lost Betty, my wife of 66 years, who passed away suddenly in Zimbabwe while visiting our daughter – on the day I had gone to South Africa to receive the Mahatma Gandhi Peace award – our brothers and comrades Jacob Zuma and Robert Mugabe extended an offer of unequalled support.
It’s the African spirit that they and Mandela exemplified.
The brotherhood between South Africa and Zambia is in no small measure because of Mandela and the ANC’s deliberate and selfless efforts.
I’m glad I got to see him again on February 11, 2010, not knowing that it was to be our final goodbye.
It broke my heart that in his final days, none of us could do anything humanly possible to help him when he needed us most – we were all helpless for a man who had given so much. The best we could do was to love him.
This is a deeply felt and personal loss for me.
May good God Almighty bless and keep him safe until we meet again with all our departed comrades from all corners of the African struggle.
May He heal the hurt that Graca Machel and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, their children, the people of South Africa and the world are feeling right now.
May his soul find peace and eternal rest.
His life was not in vain.
n Kaunda is a former president of the Republic of Zambia (1964 - 1991). - Sunday Independent