When a little, pint-sized politician called Frederick Chiluba beat him to the presidency in 1991, Kenneth Kaunda (KK) was among the first victims of the new political dispensation across the African continent. Competitive politics was upon the old order, and the maestros who had ruled the roost for decades were now facing challenges from forces they had relegated to oblivion.
To Kaunda, president of Zambia for near three decades, Chiluba was a man of no consequence, a troublesome labour organiser, physically too small for his ambitions. In typical southern African psychology, political power sits well with bodily heft, and Chiluba simply did not cut the figure.
(People will remember the epithet “diminutive bishop” applied to Abel Muzorewa by burly Joshua Nkomo, disdainful and dismissive. A man like Nkomo would probably say, ‘‘Look at me, kwedini, don’t play with me. I can sit on you!’’ And ‘kwedini’, seeing how ‘present’ the man is, would keep his peace and split.)
All the same, KK came down with a huge splash, and notice had been served to all those in power that politics would not be the same again. And he walked off stage without too much ado to play the role of senior citizen.
But Chiluba would not let him be, hounding him with accusations of not being a citizen, stealing State House property, and such things. (The ‘stolen property’ proved to be a book KK had been reading and had forgotten to leave behind!)
The desire to repay KK in his own currency was too attractive for Chiluba to resist — Kaunda had thrown Chiluba in jail once or twice during Chiluba’s irksome trade union days — and went even to the extent of having the jail doors shut behind Julius Nyerere when the latter paid a visit on the jailed KK, and insisted on staying with his old friend to make him accept to end his hunger strike. In the end, KK stood tall while his tormentor was busy proving himself to be not only small but little in stature, before he was proven to be a thief into the bargain.
But this was at the tail-end of KK’s political career. His legacy is of someone who played a leading role in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid in Southern Africa, championing the anti-colonial drive and facing up to the military might of Pretoria.
Without KK’s role in accommodating and enabling the southern African nationalist movements in their fight against apartheid, it is not easy to imagine how that effort would have panned out, or how long it might have taken.
It took the courage of men of principle like him to stay the course and on message, so hard were the circumstances placed in their paths by the Verwood’s and Vorster’s and Botha’s and their determined backers in Washington, London and Paris.
Luckily, despite the divisionary tendencies within the Organisation of African Unit, Africa managed to craft a strategy to lead the liberation struggle to its fruition, which we witnessed on that sunny April day in the grounds of Union Building in Pretoria.
Africa, endowed with such fabulous riches in natural resources is, alas! seriously deficient when it comes to men and women of vision and self-abnegation such as KK.
A committed teetotaller, he also eschewed meat and other culinary pleasures, leaving him with only two or three points of indulgence, including, I suspect, his partiality to his lifelong love, Betty, his guitar and his ubiquitous white handkerchief.
Indeed, when Betty passed in 1991, KK was inconsolable, having clearly lost the most precious connection with life, and some people even speculated that Kaunda’s days were numbered, consistent with the observation that old men do not linger long after their female companions do them leave. Almost miraculously, KK held on to what was left of him until the other day, which was essentially only the white kerchief, since his guitar and piano sessions had, unsurprisingly, become rarer in his waning years.
There is a widespread belief that such people as KK, when they shed off their mortal apparel, take off to a distant place where disease is unheard of and bliss is the basic condition of those who did good on this our unkind earth. It is a good thing to believe in, and KK should be headed there even as I write.
What an exhilarating thought that the great mind who just left us will now be reunited with Betty and their children, and with Julius Nyerere, with whom he was joined at the hip during the Mulungushi Club days, when the two lived in our neighbourhood.
Thank the spirits of our ancestors that men like KK happen. He was not a saint, because, though not a scoundrel himself, no politician can be a saint, however good. Let us celebrate his humanity.
Let the youth of Afrika learn from the example of KK, and not from those midgets they are unfortunate enough to be made to look to for leadership and inspiration where we know none exists.
Hamba kahle, Mdaala KK!
Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]