MUBANGA LUMPA: Celebrating Kenneth Kaunda, a humanist of Africa


Zambia’s first president Dr Kenneth Kaunda died on 17 June 2021 aged 97. The Zambian government announced that the country’s former president died at a military hospital in Zambia’s capital Lusaka after a short illness. Soon after the news of his death, leaders within the region, across the continent and the international scene reacted solemnly to the passing of one of Africa’s last surviving icons of the liberation struggle.

The governments in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Tanzania declared days of national mourning for their countries - a gesture of honor and respect to Kenneth Kaunda’s immense contribution to the cause of Africa’s liberation struggle and his pan-African ideas towards the continent’s progress.

Born in 1924 at Lubwa, a rural Christian missionary station in Chinsali District in the then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Kaunda defies a general or direct description of himself. He was among many Zambians, a founding father of a nation, a philosopher and a freedom fighter who fought for the country’s independence from British colonial rule. He became Zambia’s president in 1964 until 1991 when he lost power through a democratic election.

Beyond Zambia’s borders, Kaunda was a towering figure of Southern Africa’s liberation struggle. At the international stage, Kenneth Kaunda was a diplomat and statesman who often spoke truth to power, standing up against racial oppression and injustice. He offered strong criticism to powerful international interests such as Britain which supported oppressive and colonial minority regimes in Southern Africa and beyond.

Many people in his generation would remember him as a passionate proponent of Zambian Humanism, an ideology meant to mobilize the people of his country and Africa into accepting their own African system of values and ethics. Kaunda's concept of humanism would be judged against his own experience and background. Due to his staunch opposition to British colonialism and white minority rule, he would later be imprisoned by the British colonial authorities in his country for his political beliefs and his fierce criticism for racial inequality by European colonialists against the African people.

Kaunda's political ideology of Humanism embodied values of justice and equality which served as a guiding principle for individual morality in society. In both theory and practice, Kaunda’s Humanism contained elements of Marxism, socialism, and Christian faith. In his view, the traditional characteristics of Africa were inherently humanistic. Thus his ideas on humanism placed strong emphasis on individual obligation toward the advancement of the collective good of society.

He abhorred capitalism and viewed it as imperialistic which led to the exploitation of his fellow Africans. A few years after Zambia’s independence, Kaunda embarked on a radical nationalization of the Zambia’s economy, including the copper rich mineral assets of the country, leading his country towards a socialist path.

Kaunda demonstrated his values of justice and humanity when he offered his own country as a safe refuge for many of the freedom fighters fleeing their countries from oppression and racial injustice. As a result, he sacrificed his country which became a primary target for sporadic military incursions by racist regimes in South Africa and Zimbabwe, while they pursued the freedom fighters sheltered in his own country. Zambia endured foreign attacks resulting in human and economic loss during the long and difficult years of the liberation war in the region. Such was the price Kenneth Kaunda paid for his principles. He saw the oppression of others as his own and vowed to confront it to its bitter end. He was, in many ways, a firm believer in human dignity and equality.

Kaunda’s distinctive political and social ideas of humanism did not only help to secure the political freedom and justice for his own people and that of his fellow Africans across the continent. His beliefs also shaped his country’s future post-colonial social, economic and political trajectory. In the end, Kaunda was, at different times, many things good or bad about people. His actions were driven by these convictions which he strongly held while he rose to power and served as a political leader in his country.

While his death marks an end of an era, Kaunda’s ideas have undoubtedly left an indelible imprint on history and the future of the African society. Like other African giants of the liberation struggle such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Senegal’s Leopold Senghor and Kenya’ Jomo Kenyatta, Kaunda will be remembered as a humanist in Africa who fought for the dignity, justice and equality for the African people.

Mubanga Lumpa is a Zambia-based political analyst. You can follow him on Twitter on @mubangalumpa