Kenneth Kaunda: The Unapologetic Champion of the Anti-Apartheid Movement

The Government of Zambia announced on June 17, 2021, that Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s former president is dead at the age of 97. He was laid to rest at the country’s presidential burial site on July 7, 2021, after the High Court dismissed a challenge by one of his sons that this would be against his wishes.

Kenneth David Kaunda, also known as KK, was born on April 28, 1924. He was a politician from Zambia who served as the country’s first president from 1964 to 1991. He was a leading figure in the fight for independence from British domination, and later became Zambia’s first president.

Kaunda was born at Lubwa Mission in Chinsali, then part of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. His father was the Reverend David Kaunda, an ordained Church of Scotland missionary and teacher who had travelled to Chinsali to work at Lubwa Mission after being born in Nyasaland (now Malawi). His mother, who was the first African woman to teach in colonial Zambia, was also a teacher.

They were both teachers in northern Zambia’s Bemba ethnic group. Kaunda’s father died while Kaunda was a child. Until the early 1940s, Kaunda had his education there. He then followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a teacher, first in colonial Zambia and then in what is now Tanzania in the middle of the 1940s. He worked in Southern Rhodesia as well. Between 1941 and 1943, he attended the Munali Training Centre in Lusaka. Early in his career, he studied Mahatma Gandhi’s works, which he said: “went straight to my heart.”

From 1943 until 1945, Kaunda worked as a teacher at the Upper Primary School and Boarding Master at Lubwa, and then Headmaster at Lubwa. He worked in the Salisbury and Bindura Mines for a while. In early 1948, he joined the United Missions to the Copperbelt (UMCB) as a teacher in Mufulira. In Mufulira, he worked as an assistant at an African Welfare Centre and as the Boarding Master of a Mine School. He was leading a Pathfinder Scout Group and serving as Choirmaster at a Church of Central Africa congregation during that time frame. He was also the Vice-Secretary of Congress for the Nchanga Branch.

Political Journey

Kaunda joined politics in 1949, the with-head start of Northern Rhodesian African National Congress as a founding member. Under the leadership of Harry Nkumbula, he travelled to Lusaka on November 11, 1953, to take up the position of Secretary-General of the Africa National Congress (ANC). Kaunda and Nkumbula’s joint efforts fell short of mobilizing native African peoples against the European-dominated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

For distributing subversive literature, Kaunda and Nkumbula were imprisoned for two months with hard labour in 1955. As Nkumbula was increasingly influenced by white liberals and failed to defend indigenous Africans, Kuanda led a dissident group, finally breaking away from the ANC and forming the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC) in October 1958. In March 1959, ZANC was outlawed, and Kaunda was sentenced to nine months in prison, which he served in Lusaka and subsequently Salisbury.

Mainza Chona and other nationalists broke away from the ANC while Kaunda was in prison, and Chona became the first president of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), the successor to ZANC, in October 1959. Chona, on the other hand, did not view himself as the party’s primary creator. Kaunda was elected President of UNIP after his release from prison in January 1960.

In 1960, Kaunda paid a visit to Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta, and in July 1961, he organized the Cha-cha-cha campaign, a civil disobedience movement in Northern Province that included arson and disrupting major routes. Following that, in the 1962 elections, Kaunda ran as a UNIP candidate. A UNIP–ANC coalition government was formed, with Kaunda serving as Minister of Local Government and Social Welfare. In January 1964, the UNIP defeated the ANC in the next major elections, securing Kaunda’s position as Prime Minister. He became the first president of an independent Zambia on October 24, 1964, and named Reuben Kamanga as his vice-president.

Giant strides

Despite his giant strides and big waves, Kaunda suffered from criticisms for insisting that only a one-party state could prevent tribalism and violence from sweeping his country. In the general elections of 1978, 1983, and 1988, as president of UNIP and under the country’s one-party state structure, Kaunda was the only candidate for president, with official results showing over 80% of voters accepting his candidacy each time.

However, as part of his footprints, Zambia’s education cannot be left out. Bunnaj Africa was able to gather that Zambia’s modernisation process was far from complete when it gained independence. The country’s educational system was one of the least developed of all of Britain’s former colonies, with only a hundred university graduates and fewer than 6,000 indigenous people with secondary education of two years or more. Thus, Zambia had to invest extensively in education at all levels as a result of this. Kaunda implemented a policy that provided free exercise books, pens, and pencils to all children, regardless of their parent’s financial situation.

Also, in 1966, the University of Zambia opened in Lusaka, after Zambians from all around the country were asked to donate everything, they could to help fund its development. In 1969, Kaunda was named Chancellor and officiated at the university’s first graduation ceremony.

Per foreign policy, Kaunda was an active supporter of the anti-apartheid movement and challenged white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia during his early presidency. Kaunda was arguably the most important African leader involved in international diplomacy regarding the conflicts in Angola, Rhodesia which is now Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Kaunda, during his lifetime, paid a visit to former US President Gerald Ford at the White House in Washington D.C. and delivered a powerful speech calling for the US to play a more active and constructive role in southern Africa then.

Dead, but still alive

Apart from his anti-apartheid movement, Kaunda will also be remembered for many things. On June 4, 1998, he announced his resignation as leader of the United National Independence Party and retirement from politics. Following his retirement, he became involved in several charitable organizations. His passion for the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS was his most significant contribution. In the 1980s, the pandemic reportedly claimed one of Kaunda’s children.

Kaunda was an African President-in-Residence at the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University from 2002 to 2004. Also, from 1970 to 1971, and again from 1987 to 1988, Kaunda was the chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

More of his memories include a safari suit he used to wear when alive, and because Kenneth Kaunda was known to always wear a safari suit (safari jacket paired with trousers), the safari suit is still known as a “Kaunda suit” throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another memory is the independence music he wrote at the bay of Zambia’s struggle. One of those songs, known to Zambians, revealed his stance about the independence he desired to attain, with an emblem translated to— “Let’s walk together with one heart.”

Kaunda’s early life story till his death is yet another reminder that Africa is made up of great men, who by spirit, have the African continent at their hearts.

Kaunda in his words

“Some people draw a comforting distinction between force and violence. I refuse to cloud the issue by such word-play. The power which establishes a state is violence; the power which maintains it is violence; the power which eventually overthrows it is violence. Call an elephant a rabbit only if it gives you comfort to feel that you are about to be trampled to death by a rabbit.”

“This great son of the world, Madiba, showed us the way. Whether you are white, black yellow or brown you are all God’s children, come together, work together and God will show you the way.”

“The drama can only be brought to its climax in one of two ways — through the selective brutality of terrorism or the impartial horrors of war.”


Educator, writer and legal researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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