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Country mourns its founding President and liberation movement ally

The death of Independence leader Kenneth Kaunda has triggered a fight over his legacy in a heated election campaign

As citizens and regional leaders paid tribute to the country's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who died on 17 June at the age of 97, some local politicians were trying to exploit the national sense of loss amid tense campaigning ahead of the general election in August.

The ruling Patriotic Front wants to take Kaunda's coffin on a 10-province tour, claiming it is carrying out the wishes of the family. But local activists deny this is what the Kaunda family wants and argue that such a funeral tour, attracting huge crowds, would be grossly irresponsible in the middle of a pandemic.

Kaunda was one the leading African nationalists of the independence era in the 1950s and 1960s who followed up with strong support for regional liberation movements. For that solidarity, Zambia's government and its people paid a heavy price in the form of economic sabotage and military attacks by the colonial and apartheid regimes.

Kaunda and his fellow freedom fighters led Zambia to independence in 1964, in a struggle that was less traumatic than in settler colonies such as Kenya and Zimbabwe. After eight years in power, Kaunda dealt with internal opposition by declaring a one-party state, remaining President for a further 19 years.

Kaunda's enduring legacy is his commitment to the regional liberation movements. Apart from South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) which had its continental headquarters in Lusaka from the 1960s, Zambia hosted liberation movements from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Angola. But with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, Kaunda's regional work was done. Zambia was no longer on a war footing, and the people were left with a badly-battered economy and a failing government.

Facing unrest, Kaunda agreed to multiparty elections in 1991. In the first democratic defeat of an entrenched one-party state in Anglophone Africa, Kaunda's United National Independence Party retained just 25 out of 150 parliamentary seats.

Kaunda stepped down with good grace, encouraged by the United States' former President Jimmy Carter, camped out in Lusaka's State House. His successor, Frederick Chiluba, treated Kaunda as a political adversary. In 1997-98 he detained Kaunda on trumped-up charges of treason, and he was freed only after Mandela intervened.

After he retired from active politics, Kaunda focused on his role as an outspoken advocate in the fight against HIV and AIDS. KK – as he was universally known – was much loved, not so much for his presidency but as a role model representing humane values and conduct largely missing in the multiparty era.

A vegetarian teetotaler, Kaunda had modest tastes and espoused a philosophy of 'humanism', his own admixture of socialism and Christian teachings. With his 'one Zambia' mantra, Kaunda fiercely opposed ethnic politics, which have had growing influence in the past three decades.

A liberation stalwart, unblemished by scandal and still waving his trademark white handkerchief, Kaunda was greeted across the region with an awe and love that few leaders experience.

At times, his presence could be uncomfortable for today's politicians, who have inspired little of the respect he had won (AC Vol 54 No 18, KK cuts a dash). Until his failing health kept him quietly at home, Kaunda could be blunt, publicly admonishing 'young men' whose conduct had irked him.

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