Kenneth Kaunda, the internationalist

The often unsung legacy of Zambia’s first president was the pivotal role he played in establishing the country as a central hub for pan-Africanist and internationalist activities.

With an African kitenge crossed over his shoulder, beaming and tearful, the newly elected president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda addressed the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in December 1964. In this speech, Kaunda shared his commitment to building an anticolonial, anti-imperialist liberation front and decolonisation processes. He also called for the recognition of China as a member state and declared that the “United Nations is as good as what we, the member nations, put into it in the way of service to humanity”.

His final words called for recognition that “the true path to harmonious relations and world peace lies in focusing attention on human beings and in going out in a spirit of brotherhood to meet human needs”.

Continental unity

With his death on 17 June, we remember some of Kenneth Kaunda’s internationalist contributions in service of subjected and exploited peoples.

In the 1960s, the call to African unity faced many challenges. By 1961, the beacon of liberation, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. The Organisation for African Unity (1963) was ideologically split between the Casablanca Group (Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria), which advocated for radical and full continental integration; the Monrovia Group (consisting of Nigeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sudan, Togo, and Somalia), which proposed a moderate approach to unification to be undertaken in incremental steps; and the Brazzaville Group (many Francophone countries led by Senegal and the Ivory Coast), which remained tied to the interests of France.

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In Ghana, the centre of radical internationalist activities against imperialism regionally and globally received a great blow when the Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup pushed Kwame Nkrumah out of office in 1966. Apart from Algeria to the north and some protections offered by Guinea-Conakry to its direct neighbours in West Africa, a great political vacuum gaped at the heart of the continent’s anticolonial struggle.

It is within this context that Kaunda stepped up and sang Tiyende pamodzi (“Let’s walk together”), his signature tune calling for unity of struggle.

At the continental level, as leader of what became one of the “frontline states” against colonialism, Kaunda believed that no African could walk freely on the streets of their own independent nation while other Africans remained in bondage. Various anticolonial groups fighting to end white supremacist colonial rule in southern Africa found a home in Zambia. Internationally, Kaunda had played the crucial role of building relationships with liberation movements across the world, from the United States to the Caribbean and China.

Colonial isolation

The colonial economy in Zambia was a mix of copper mining (70% of export earnings in recent years), a small commercial farming sector controlled by white settlers and subsistence farming in largely undeveloped rural regions. Infrastructure, the little that existed, was developed to serve the mining sector, not the people.

13 April 1966: Heads of state, including the first president of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda (far right), gather in Nairobi, Kenya, for an East and Central African summit meeting. (Photograph by Bettmann/ Getty Images) 

During the earlier period of anticolonial struggle, despite fighting the same struggles, most African nations were isolated from one another. “In 1954, a few colleagues and myself wanted to organise a pan-African Congress for this region. We invited some people from the neighbouring countries, but even they were banned. Only one man from the United Nations, a Burmese, managed to attend,” explained Kaunda in 2008. “We were very insular. It was not our choice. It was the way the colonial masters wanted it to be.”

Despite being bound up to the rest of the continent in a world economy strung together by centuries of European colonialism, the conventions of domination meant that most African countries were isolated from one another. This understanding guided Kaunda, and many others, in the struggle for national, continental and international liberation in the 21st century.

Regional solidarity processes

As a landlocked nation bordering eight countries, Zambia, at its independence in 1964, faced the challenges of several neighbouring colonial and racist regimes. In the mid 1960s, Zambia’s major borders were with nations controlled by white-supremacist foreign regimes in collaboration with the South African apartheid state: Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (Namibia) and Portuguese Angola and Mozambique. Once independent, as agreed on during the establishment of the Liberation Committee in Tanzania in 1963, Zambia supported African liberation fighters by offering political support and recognition, transit and broadcasting facilities, and financial and material assistance.

Many guerrilla organisations maintained military bases, training camps, refugee centres and administrative offices in Zambia. Military bases and training camps, for example, strengthened the armed wings of liberation organisations, enabling military operations and safe transmission and storage of military materials, running combatant courses for up to eight months and acting as a safe transit to specialist courses in different African and overseas socialist countries. Each one of those camps was capable of handling up to 1 000 trainee combatants at any one time. Before Mkushi was bombed in October 1978, it was also producing nearly 1 000 female combatants every six or so months.

In 1973, Zambia formally inaugurated broadcasting services, known as “The War of Words Channel”, with the aid of powerful Chinese transmitters. Representatives of the anticolonial forces of Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe organised programming for their allocated one hour a day slots. Radio Zambia enabled coverage of most of southern Africa for more than 40 hours a week in 22 languages.

This support came at great cost. Economically, Zambia faced the wrath of Western disgruntlement with rapid economic withdrawals in key industries that required capital investment, such as oil production.

19 April 1975: President Kenneth Kaunda, Betty Kaunda and the Zambian delegation give an impromptu performance during a state dinner in Kaunda’s honour. (Photograph by the US National Archives, Public Domain)

In 1979, the Rhodesian forces targeted and attacked several training camps in Zambia of African liberation organisations (mainly Zimbabwe African National Union/Zimbabwe African People’s Union), and bombed refugee camps of those who had to flee neighbouring countries at war. The attack on Nampundwe refugee camp, which housed an estimated 14 000 men, women and children, was described by the Rhodesian military as a “routine mission” and that more was yet to come.

To the north, US-backed Zaire (Congo) was fragmenting under the pressures of international mining interests and domestic corruption and violence. To the northeast, Tanzania – independent in 1962 respectively – was the only concrete ally, particularly with the leading role of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.

This is where the first major railway development project with China became so pivotal. Beginning in 1967, the railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia represented a Third World construction project designed to provide participating nations with economic independence from apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa. This formed the basis of Mao Zedong’s “Three Worlds” theory, which he discussed with Kaunda on his second visit to China in 1974. In the 1970s, China sent experts, specialists and about 15 000 workers to help build the strategic railway, which linked Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to central Zambia and reduce regional trade dependence on apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa.

Never forgetting, even in triumph

Kaunda’s opening words at the 1964 UN General Assembly offer the sentiment many mourners should summon today: “It was in 1962 that I last stood here and, then, I wept for the suffering and humiliation of my people at home. Today, even in our jubilation, I weep still. I say to our brothers of South Africa, of Southern Rhodesia, and of the Portuguese Territories: Today we weep for you. We do not forget you on the day of our triumph.”

Throughout his political work, Kaunda never forgot his fellow Africans in the fight for liberation.

This article was first published by People’s Dispatch.

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