To watch KK was a lesson in not falling for stereotypes
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee
In the death of Kenneth Kaunda, we have lost an icon of Africa’s liberation struggles, the last of Africa’s first generation of post-liberation leaders, and one of India’s staunchest and most steadfast friends.
KK, as he was known, bestrode the southern African political scene like a colossus. He took over as Zambia’s president in 1964 and handed over power after losing elections in 1991.
His leadership of the campaign for Zambia’s Independence from British colonial rule drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The campaign focused on civil disobedience, strikes, and boycotts.
In a repetition of Gandhi’s famous act of defiance in South Africa against the “pass laws”, KK burnt his colonial identity card.
I was assigned as Deputy High Commissioner to Zambia in the Indian Mission in the early 1980s — and was acting head of mission for a substantial period. This was the first of a number of assignments I held in Africa. In hindsight, Zambia provided the best introduction for a young diplomat to modern African history, and a ringside seat to history in the making.
Under KK and his commitment to the end of white minority rule in Africa, Lusaka had become the centre of the liberation movements. It was the headquarters of the South African liberation movement, the African National Congress in-exile, as also the South West African People’s Organisation before it shifted to Angola.
As sometime chairman and always the most prominent of the leaders of the frontline states, which were contiguous to the last bastions of White minority rule, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Namibia, and South Africa, KK kept up the drumbeat of diplomatic, political and material support for the liberation movements.
And he was not deterred by the price that Zambia had to pay for this — militarily attacked by the forces of Rhodesia and South Africa, and economically hurt by denial of a transport route to the ports on which Zambia was heavily dependent for its single-important export commodity, copper ore.
I still remember the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in 1985 in Nassau.
Margaret Thatcher stubbornly held out against imposing sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, but was forced to backtrack by an unstoppable charge led by Rajiv Gandhi and KK.
This led to the formation of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group to report on the situation in South Africa.
To watch KK as a ruler was a lesson in not falling for stereotypes. He was the reverse of the stereotypical “big man” image of the flamboyant, firebrand African leader. Impressed by Gandhi’s asceticism, he was a non-drinker and a non-smoker, and gave up eating meat because people of colour had to shop at a separate window at the butcher’s in the colonial days. He was an orator who could rouse crowds, yet utterly soft-spoken in private, a perfect host pouring out the coffee for guests after a state house banquet.
Gifted with a singing voice, his image was inextricably linked with the song “Tiyende Pamodzi” (Let’s pull together)
KK banned political parties, and ruled for 27 years in what was a single-party state. For most of this time, Zambians gave his benign one-party rule their loyalty.
But the collapse of copper prices and the rise in oil prices ruined the economy, for which he perforce had to shoulder the blame. Forced to bring back the multiparty system under popular pressure, he held elections in 1991, and lost comprehensively.
But unlike in other similar situations in Africa, KK congratulated his opponent and handed over power peacefully, the first major African Head of State to do so besides (another) instance in Benin.
KK was harassed by his successor, accused of insurrection, threatened with deportation as an alien from Malawi, and yet retained enough respect for the Zambian government to publicly apologise to him in 2004.
While the jury is out on his one-party rule, there is consensus about KK’s seminal achievement in providing stability and peace to a nation of over 70 tribal groups.
His courage and determination in support of the liberation movements, and his staunch attachment to non-alignment, will be remembered, for old freedom fighters, like soldiers, never die — they just fade away. – Hindustan Times
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee is a retired diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service