On June 17, Southern Africa – and indeed the world – lost a towering figure when Zambia’s Founding Father, Dr Kenneth Kaunda, breathed his last.
Since then, tributes have been pouring in from across the globe, with just about everyone saying KK was a rare kind of leader.
Not that Dr Kaunda was a perfect man. Far from it.
He dabbled with a one party state in the 1970s and 1980s, and there were grave reservations about some of his economic policies and pursuits.
For many of the people eulogising Dr Kaunda, these major flaws were all brushed away by the fact that in 1991 when he lost the Presidential election to Dr Frederick Chiluba, he gracefully exited the stage.
And on leaving the stage, KK did not try to destabilise Zambia’s politics from the side lines, as some ex-leaders are wont to do. Even when Dr Chiluba arrested him and it took the intervention of several Southern African leaders to have him released, KK maintained his dignity. If anything, that incident enhanced his stature at home and abroad.
He also found time to advance the cause of HIV and Aids awareness after the personal tragedy of the loss of a son to the disease at a time stigma was a serious problem.
So yes, KK deserves our enduring respect for all these things that he did after 1991.
But for us in Southern Africa, his legacy stretches back to the time he was dabbling with one-party state politics and experimenting with economic ideas that would ultimately fail to withstand the charge of Western capitalism.
The founding member of the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner to the African Union, was instrumental in the establishment of the Frontline States that was instrumental in fighting South African apartheid from 1975 right up to 1994.
Dr Kaunda’s government also provided material and moral support to the liberation movements of Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
And what a terrible price Zambia paid for that belief in the Nkrumah-ist perspective that the freedom of one country means nothing when the rest of Africa is not free!
As a group, the Frontline States were bombed and destabilised by apartheid South Africa with the tacit support of its allies in the West, and the overt co-operation of acolytes closer to home such as Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Rebel movements were funded to fan civil wars in Angola and Mozambique.
Some estimates put the number of dead because of the Frontline States’ solidarity at two million, with a further seven million people being displaced.
Zambia itself experienced heinous attacks such as the October 1978 bombing of Freedom camp (Operation Gatling by the Rhodesian military) in which well over 2,000 people were killed.
The losses that countries like Zambia and the other Frontline States bore for the freedom of their fellow Africans was not only in terms of human life – though that was certainly the biggest price.
Leaders such as Dr Kaunda diverted money meant for their countries’ own national development so that they could support the region’s liberations struggles. This is money that could have been spent on the healthcare, education and infrastructure of their own citizens. But they recognised that they would never be really free unless all of Africa was free.
According to a 1989 Commonwealth report, the Frontline States lost around US$45 billion in 10 years – “almost three times their combined foreign debt at the time” due to their decision to stand with the oppressed and against the powerful.
It would be useful to recall the words of Independent Zambia’s first Home Minister, Mr Aaron Milner, who once said: “We had to divert our resources to finance the different liberation movements including the ANC.”
And then quite beautifully, Milner added: “The sacrifice was worth it.”
And some may also recall the 1979 incident when the Rhodesians plotted an audacious operation to try and assassinate Dr Joshua Nkomo in Lusaka. Dr Nkomo was to later become a Vice-President of Independent Zimbabwe.
The assassination was supposed to coincide with an international conference to support liberation movements in Southern Africa, which Dr Kaunda was hosting.
That plan failed after the Rhodesians’ communications leaked and the liberation fighters employed added security measures.
But was most inspiring about it all was Dr Kaunda’s reaction to the uncovering of the plot, as well as to the continued threat of attacks on Zambia and Zambians. His response to it all is one of the reasons why the whole world is mourning him today.
Dr Kaunda declared, “They can bomb Lusaka 1,000 times. These things happened in Vietnam. Where is Vietnam today? Free. We will fight to the bitter end. Victory is assured.”
That is the kind of man KK was. That is the kind of man who, even as we mourn, we celebrate.
Dr Kaunda fought the good fight, he fought it to the best of his abilities. And it is every African’s responsibility to fight the good fight.