The father of Zambian democracy
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Kenneth Kaunda made some bad choices, but always with good intentions, writes Brendan Seery.
The white tablecloth-bedecked table, with a jug of water and two glasses, looked incongruous on the lush green lawn, barely 50m away from a group of antelope grazing peacefully.
The gardens of State House in Lusaka in the 1980s were impressive, not least because they contained a number of perfectly manicured putting greens so the occupant of the place, Kenneth Kaunda, could practise what was probably his second-favourite pastime, golf.
What he put most of his energies into into those days – the days of apartheid, Total Onslaught, the Frontline States and the South African Development Community (SADC) – was trying to make peace in southern Africa and help the people of the region break free from the shackles of colonialism.
It meant that he often had to bear the slings and barbs of those (like Robert Mugabe and his Zanu liberation organisation) who believed Kaunda was supping far too much with the devil of white supremacy south of the Limpopo.
He was little deterred by the criticism and used every opportunity to act as an honest broker in the myriad talks, talk-about-talks and talks-about-talks-about talks which proliferated across the sub-continent in the 1970s and 1980s.
Which was why a green young journalist was sitting at a table on the lawn at State House, waiting for KK. I was in Lusaka to meet leaders of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) and the Zambian president knew I was in town. Or, more correctly, he knew that a journalist working for a South African news organisation was around – and he wanted to send a very public message to president PW Botha in Pretoria.
That was his way of arm-wrestling the South Africans into getting around a table about Namibia, which was still being administered by South Africa, despite UN resolutions that stipulated it should leave and allow the country its independence.
The exact details of what he told me are lost in the mists of memory. But I will never forget his trademark white handkerchief, which he hauled out from the breast pocket of his pinstriped jacket. Nor the softness of his handshake.
This was a man who never believed he had to exercise power to achieve his goals; a man who believed the rightness of his cause would win over anyone.
And, to be honest, he won me over.
KK was one of the most charming politicians I have met, with a charisma which exceeded even that of Nelson Mandela. He had a way of leading you along with him, of convincing you that love was the answer.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, that impression still remains with me. It was even reinforced when I met him again in Johannesburg in 2005, when he and former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire were roving ambassadors, African wise men, travelling the world to gain support for development and anti-Aids programmes.
There are many who do criticise Kaunda’s role in the history of southern Africa.
He almost destroyed his own country in the 1960s and 1970s, when his ill-considered attempts at socialism, Zambia-style, almost brought his country to its knees economically… and allowed his southern neighbour, white minority Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith to continually use Zambia as an example of why he was so opposed to one-man, one-vote democracy.
It is ironic that, from 2000 onwards, as the Zimbabwean economy imploded, Zambia looked prosperous and stable by comparison... and the Zambians even invited newly landless white Zimbabwean farmers to come in and run commercial farms.
But Kaunda, whatever his domestic failures, played a leading role in the liberation of southern Africa.
He offered his country’s territory as bases for a number of liberation movements, including Zanu and Zapu from Zimbabwe and the ANC from South Africa.
That was at a considerable risk to his country and his people, as was proved repeatedly after Rhodesia closed its borders with Zambia in 1976 and Rhodesian forces made a number of cross-border raids.
Yet, Kaunda managed to engineer a number of historic meetings between black nationalists and the Rhodesian government – the most famous being the talks held on a train parked exactly in the middle of the Victoria Falls bridge between Rhodesia and Zambia in December 1975.
These talks were a co-operative effort with the then South African prime minister BJ Vorster and, effectively, became the first leak in the dyke of Ian Smith’s dream of a 1 000 years of white rule.
The relationship between Kaunda and the South Africans over Rhodesia was interesting, because both he and Vorster shared the desire to see Rhodesia go to independence and democracy in a controlled manner.
Vorster may well have believed his white government would be rid of a millstone around its neck (it was supporting Smith in many way in those days) and would be better able to deal with its own black nationalists at home.
The bridge meeting was probably only the publicly visible tip of a diplomatic iceberg of negotiations and talks which, if nothing else, began a process which ultimately culminated in Mandela being sworn in as the first black president of South Africa in May 1994.
Yet, it was not all plain sailing or wise decisions, either for Kaunda or Zambia.
KK’s support for liberation movements led to the deaths of many Zambians and the destruction of huge chunks of its transport infrastructure in 1979 as Rhodesian forces moved to forestall an anticipated armoured invasion of their country from Zambian soil by Joshua Nkomo’s Zipra army.
Kaunda’s backing of Nkomo also poisoned relationships with Mugabe and his post-independence government to such an extent that, even today, relations between the two countries are not as cordial as they could be.
At the heart of his machinations over three decades, though, was what I believe was Kaunda’s genuine desire to see the people of southern Africa freed from colonialism and to be allowed their true place in the sun.
A devout Christian, Kaunda told me in 2005 that he believed it was God’s will that the transition from apartheid went so smoothly.
“Fortunately the ANC did not seek revenge.
“Two wrongs can never make a right.”
He added: “We are all God’s children. We must relate to one another as God’s children and not in terms of colour, religion or tribe.”
In his latter days (he is now 90), Kaunda had to deal with personal tragedy (one of his sons died of Aids) and the realisation that not everybody – and particularly those in South Africa – believed in African unity the way he did.
In 2005, he was already worried about the “selfish” attitudes in South Africa – shared by both black and white – which mean people here tend to regard their fellow Africans as below them.
Kaunda was worried that South Africa, with its economic power and infrastructure, coupled with the ignorance or arrogance of some of its people, could easily turn itself into “the America of Africa”.
KK told an interesting story of this worrying South African muscle.
“In 1965 I banned the importation of vegetables from South Africa.
“This is because Zambia has good soil and is good for producing vegetables.
“Then, some time under the Chiluba government, Shoprite Checkers came to Zambia.
“Now they export vegetables to Zambia – even eggs – and our vegetable-growing industry does not exist. And millions of dollars a week goes straight out of Zambia. This sort of thing is going to destroy that economy.”
He added: “We complain about Europe and the US doing this sort of thing to us in organisations like the WTO, but then why do we do it to ourselves?”
Some might say his words were those of a bitter, rambling old man whose country had been eclipsed. I think he had the right to say them, a right earned by his contribution to the liberation of his continent.
One day, when the history of Africa is written correctly, and not with political correctness, Kenneth Kaunda will be acknowledged... and so will Zambia.
* Brendan Seery is executive editor at the Saturday Star.