Reflections on Kenneth Kaunda’s long life, and the unseemly politicisation of his funeral

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 5, 2021

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Emmanuel Matambo and David Monyae

The world is united in grief over the death of Kenneth Kaunda (fondly called KK), the founding president of the Republic of Zambia and one of the Founding Fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU – now AU [African Union]).

This is indeed a sombre and solemn page in the annals of Zambia’s history. The 97-year-old statesman passed away at Maina Soko Military Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia.

Kaunda has been hailed as probably the last of the remaining heroes of Africa’s struggle for independence. The outpouring of tributes testifies to how far-reaching Kaunda’s life has been.

Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, spoke of feeling an indescribable sense of loss about Kaunda’s death.

Mr Mahamat further asserted that Kaunda “embodied the true sense of Pan-Africanism, placing his own country Zambia at grave risk in order to provide safe harbour for the liberation movements of Southern Africa as well as its peoples.”

Botswana declared seven days of national mourning in honour of Kaunda’s legacy, while South Africa declared ten days of national mourning for the same reason during which the national flag will fly at half-mast.

Kaunda’s larger-than-life figure was intimately linked to Zambia’s history and the history of Southern Africa in general.

Former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, rightly described Kaunda as one of the architects of South Africa’s democracy. Kaunda, like many politicians of his time, has left behind different legacies to different people.

Kenneth Kaunda leaves behind a huge legacy; he was a devout Christian, but also a shrewd politician who, in his pursuit for a unified country at times had to silence opposition.

However, ultimately, the exemplary nature with which he carried himself, both in office and afterwards will stand him in high regard before the judgement of posterity.

His 27 years of office, 18 of which were under a one-party regime, demonstrated the best of Kaunda’s diplomatic dexterity.

While he was, in principle, opposed to Western equivocation on settler and apartheid rule in Southern Africa, he was also keenly aware of the importance of pursuing and sustaining cordial relations with global powers.

This was important for both the survival of Zambia and the fact that international pressure was needed to weaken the recalcitrancy of racist regimes in Southern Africa.

In 1991, Kaunda blazed a trail when he conceded to calls for a return to multiparty democracy. After a defeat by Frederick Chiluba, he conceded defeat and graciously left office; this was also unusual, considering his towering figure in the country and Africa.

After leaving office, Kaunda pursued many other passions, and his contribution to demystifying HIV/AIDS is one of the most important contributions.

Another pioneering feat of his was his disclosure that his son, Masuzgo, had died of AIDS in 1986. He did so at the time when stigma against HIV/AIDS was at its peak; this was a time when AIDS was a mystery to many people.

His gesture was a bold and exemplary one. This admission it also ranged his family with many African countries that battle daily with HIV/AIDS.

Posterity will judge Kaunda kindly for his fight against colonial rule and for the many causes he devoted his life to. But lest we defy him, we also must take serious note of the pitfalls of his decades in power.

First, Zambia’s chronic dependency on copper as the mainstay of the country’s economy and major export, which he instituted during his time in office continues to this day, which exposes Zambia’s to the fickle whims of commodity prices.

In the final analysis, despite his many failures, especially of an economic nature, Kaunda stands as one of the best of Zambia’s six presidents in the last three decades.

The mean-spirited treatment he got under his successor, Frederick Chiluba, and the general lack of transformation in terms of economic dividends under the five presidents that have ruled Zambia since Kaunda left office, will inadvertently make Kaunda one of Zambia’s best presidents hitherto.

Today, Zambia finds itself in stark contrast to what is being said about its founding president. With less than two months to go before a crucial election, the country has been awash with violence and tribal politicking.

This goes against Kenneth Kaunda’s and the country’s mantra of “One Zambia, One Zambia.”

For example, the incumbent president has refused to rebuke his tribalist supporters. Indeed, by his choice of Nkandu Luo as his running mate in the August 12 elections, President Edgar Lungu has tacitly endorsed those using tribal sentiment as a condition for how Zambians should vote.

Kaunda’s death also comes a few days after Edgar Lungu finagled what is arguably an illegal run of office, having been elected twice to office in a country with a two-term limit for the presidential office.

It is probably fitting, then, that while countries like Botswana and South Africa, with credible democracies, have been effusive in their grief over Kaunda’s death, Zambia’s president has been conspicuously obscure, choosing to confine his sentiment to Facebook and Twitter.

It is also saddening that Kaunda’s funeral is being used for political gain. The government’s decision to carry Kaunda’s body to all of Zambia’s ten provinces amid the coronavirus pandemic is curious.

More curious is the fact that there will be no physical body viewing. Why, then, should the government embark on the countrywide transportation of the corpse that people will not be able to view?

There seems to be no logic to this charade, save for the political gain that the current government seeks as the date for the August elections draws closer.

* Emmanuel Matambo and David Monyae, Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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