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Kenneth Kaunda was truly a man of the people, says Mac Maharaj

Nelson Mandela and Kenneth Kaunda wave to the crowd as they arrive at an ANC mass rally at Independent Stadium in Lusaka. Picture: Walter Dhladhla/AFP

Nelson Mandela and Kenneth Kaunda wave to the crowd as they arrive at an ANC mass rally at Independent Stadium in Lusaka. Picture: Walter Dhladhla/AFP

Published Jun 20, 2021


Kenneth Kaunda was the last of an iconic generation of African leaders whose contribution to the liberation of Southern Africa is immeasurable, says Mac Maharaj.

Maharaj was reflecting on the passing away of Kaunda this week at a Zambian hospital at the age of 97.

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Maharaj and his family spent a part of their lives living in Zambia and witnessed first hand the now famous ‘Kaunda hospitality’ that leaders of Southern African liberation movements experienced in Zambia.

At the time in 1977, Maharaj was secretary of the ANC’s internal mission based in Zambia and had on occasion interacted with Kaunda. His wife was employed by the Zambian government to computerise their school examination system and his kids went to school there.

For him, Kaunda, affectionately called ’KK’, formed part of a great lineage of African leaders who served the continent selflessly.

“The generation of Nkumah, Kenyatta and Luthuli laid the foundation that said that Africa’s freedom was indivisible. Without freedom for all, there was freedom for none. Kaunda practiced this legacy together with his generation of leaders like Nyerere and Neto,” said Maharaj.

In essence what this meant was Kaunda taking the freedom of his country and placing it at the service of the rest of the continent - a task at which he excelled.

“KK was outstanding,” says Maharaj.

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“Here was a man who led a country that was newly liberated, battling the economic challenges of the times, completely landlocked and heavily dependent on neighbouring states including South Africa. Yet in the middle of that battle, he managed to balance building a life for his people and supporting the freedom efforts of others. It was truly remarkable,” said Maharaj.

Kaunda opened his country to most of the liberation movements in the Southern African region and for an ANC cadre in Zambia, Maharaj said that Kaunda’s message of support filtered down to every aspect of Zambian life.

“As members of the ANC, we did not live in ANC clusters. We lived amongst the people of Zambia, in the townships and in the suburbs. My children played with our neighbours' children, there was no concept of colour,” said Maharaj.

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He said the Zambian people could see how their lives were sacrificed for the sake of South Africa’s struggle for liberation and yet they were still accepted.

“Many of our cadres married Zambian partners. Many who were qualified professionals went on to serve Zambia. We were completely accepted. Today we have a country where in the face of economic struggles, we turn to xenophobia. The Zambians never did that to us, because Kaunda’s message was one of constant support for our struggle,” said Maharaj.

Due to the ANC’s presence in Zambia, Kaunda also formed close bonds with OR Tambo - a yesteryear bromance that was based on a deep mutual understanding of the challenges facing the continent. A sign of this deep bond was Nelson Mandela’s visit with Tambo to Zambia shortly after his release from prison.

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“Kaunda had a deep friendship with OR. Because the ANC was under attack from the apartheid regime, Kaunda took a personal interest in OR’s safety, giving him lodgings and an office at State House - Zambia’s presidential residence,” said Maharaj

Kaunda would often alert Tambo and the ANC if he received information of potential raids by the apartheid state.

“Kaunda would say to OR, come and stay with me. If they try to kill you, they will have to kill me too. He was a man of peace but here he was being drawn into multiple wars waged by liberation movements on the continent.”

Maharaj said another aspect that cemented Kaunda and Tambo’s friendship was their common religious beliefs in Christianity.

“They shared Christian beliefs but they never wore it on their sleeves. They never wore it on their sleeves or imposed it on others. I think they lived the Christian value of ‘I am my brothers keeper’ and of love and unity. In a sense it was the glue that kept them together,” said Maharaj.

However that wasn’t to say that the relationship between Kaunda and the ANC was always smooth. There were challenges, according to Maharaj, but challenges that need to be understood in the context of the times.

“We were unhappy when Kaunda met with BJ Vorster or had discussions with the apartheid regime but we understood the monoeverurs he needed to make to keep the balance, so it was never taken seriously. We appreciated Kaunda’s difficulties,” said Maharaj.

But perhaps Maharaj’s most enduring memory of Kaunda is an incident he witnessed at a dinner hosted by Kaunda at State House which for him epitomised the great African leader.

“Kaunda hosted a gathering for some ANC cadres and those that had been released from Robben Island. That is where I witnessed the sheer humility of the man and it is an image I will never forget. At dinner time, Kaunda, without fanfare, went to the head of the table and started handing out plates to all the guests. He ate last. It was something about that action that told me he was truly a man of the people,” said Maharaj

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