Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|June 17, 2021|9 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

Super Ken  - kind yet flawed.

One of the last lions of liberation in Africa has gone.

Kenneth Kaunda – the first president of an independent Zambia – died quietly in a Lusaka hospital on June 17 aged 97. He was not a quiet man who stood up for the rights of the people in a far from quiet life; when he wasn’t speaking, or campaigning, he could coax a tune from a number of instruments. He had charm and confidence to burn and was at ease playing a guitar for the president of the United States in the White House as he was waltzing around the dancefloor with Britain’s Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.

On top of this, Kaunda was a pan-Africanist who pushed for the liberation of the entire continent; he campaigned for causes and toured South Africa in the run up to its historic 1994 elections trailing his trademark white handkerchief of peace out of the back window of his four-wheel drive.

I first got to know Kaunda in 1995 when he was trying to make a political comeback against his diminutive successor President Frederick Chiluba.

“These are frightened little men trying to scare me!” Kaunda would tell me.

Yet, the comeback was a tall order.  It was like watching a kindly septuagenarian mountaineer on the slopes of Mount Everest; I questioned whether he was merely a has-been in Zambian politics. He assured me that the people – who had kicked him out at the ballot box in 1991 – still loved him.

“Prove it,” I said.

We drove to a township of my choice, in Lusaka, and sure enough; within minutes, hundreds of people mobbed the former president, fighting to shake his hand and cheering him to the echo.

As for persecution, Kaunda was also far from wrong. Chiluba’s men tried to strip Kaunda of his Zambian citizenship and shove him over the border to Malawi where he was born the son of a Church of Scotland minister in colonial days before either nation existed. The government had even secured a house in Malawi for him to live in. Kaunda admitted he had never bothered to get a passport because everyone knew him around the world. Chiluba eventually backed down leading to joyous protests on the streets. Not for the lasts time, the people in power scored an own goal over Kaunda.

On election day, in 1996, Kaunda pulled out of the election in protest against what he claimed was vote rigging and went to play golf, in Lusaka, instead. On that day, he was as genial as ever and I took that historic picture that you see at the top of this story.

Two years later, the wrath of the government came down on Kaunda’s head yet again. There was a botched coup attempt by a drunken army officer and his buddies; loyal soldiers crushed it in hours. The court charged Kaunda with treason claiming he knew of the coup but didn’t tell the authorities.

I covered that case every day for more than four months at the High Court in Lusaka – leaving my home in Harare at 3AM to drive to Lusaka before proceedings opened at 9 AM every Monday.

In that trial, police and soldiers manhandled Kaunda in an out of court like a criminal by a government too dense to see the damage it was doing to world opinion. He grew a bushy white beard in protest and waved his white handkerchief, sadly, over a wall of soldiers who tried to keep him out of our sight.

It was days of thuggery, guns and barbed wire. The police pushed us around; the intelligence men threatened me with a severe beating for turning up at court armed with a pen and notebook.

I was there the sunny day the flimsy case was thrown out of court and his lawyers leant out of the windows high in the building smiling and waving V-for-victory gestures, which also happened to be the symbol of Kaunda’s party UNIP.

Thousands danced and sang in victory on the lawns below in pictures that went around the world. If ever a government, anywhere, could claim it had wasted millions just to shoot itself in the foot- this was it.

Fresh from incarceration, I interviewed Kaunda with his white beard. At the end of the interview, I ventured that he looked more like Father Christmas than a rebel.

“Isn’t that still a noble thing to be Chris?” with the laugh that charmed a score of world leaders.

Yet, that charm often masked Kaunda’s darker side. He came into power with a strong ethos of education and national reconstruction, in October 1964, but his 27-year reign with UNIP bordered on dictatorship.

People in the rich copper belt may have called him Super Ken, but those who opposed him were given short shrift.

I asked Kaunda about these allegations of brutality when he was making his political comeback in 1995.

“Chris, when I get into the bath, if I see a spider, I will take it out before I put my water there. That is the man I am. There may have been one or two over zealous policemen here and there, but myself I knew of nothing,” he said.

I spoke to many Zambians down the years who claimed that it was not merely overzealous policemen who cracked heads in Kaunda’s day.

Many of those people were out on the streets of Lusaka smashing up shops in 1991 in protest against Kaunda’s lumbering state-controlled economy that was causing food shortages. My mate, the late Zambian cameraman Errol Hickey, was there and told me that Kaunda was shaking with rage.

But at least Kaunda had the decency to submit to the ballot box that ended his days in power. Lesser leaders would have merely ordered a crackdown. Few were more surprised than Kaunda himself when he lost; one of the reasons Kaunda never bothered to get a passport, or line his pockets – like his successor did – was, seriously, he believed he was president-for-life.

If Kaunda had a fatal flaw, it was that he overstayed his welcome as president – an oft repeated mistake in Africa. It was OK when the copper price was high and the world economic winds were fairer, but it would have been better to have had a younger successor with new ideas in the wings to deal with the tougher, meaner, times of the last 30 years.

All that said, I have met a score of past and present African presidents, over the last 30 years, it is unlikely I will meet one as humble, kind and charismatic as the gentle late Kenneth Kaunda.

Picture Courtesy : Chris Bishop