Zambia’s former president Kenneth Kaunda dies aged 97

Thursday June 17 2021
Kenneth Kaunda.

Zambia's former President Kenneth Kaunda in 2012. PHOTO | AFP



Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding President and one of the pioneers of African liberation from colonialism, has died after several days of admission in a Lusaka military hospital.

Simon Miti, Zambia’s Secretary to the Cabinet, confirmed on Thursday that Kaunda died shortly after 2pm local time (12pm GMT).

Flags will fly at half-mast in all public buildings and missions abroad as the country embarks on three weeks of official national mourning. Entertainment places will also be closed at this time.

Kaunda, 97, had been admitted to Maina Soko Military Hospital in Lusaka earlier this week.

An indelible figure at the centre of Zambia's nation building spanning over five decades, Kaunda lived to his ripe old age, surviving many health scares and admissions in hospitals.


He always resurfaced more fit and was seen jogging at national events whenever he was invited to take the podium. He once told an interviewer that his diet mostly comprised vegetable and fruit salad, as well as raw seeds and nuts.

Liberation hero

KK, as he was fondly referred to, was a towering figure from his days as a liberation hero and was still revered by the 18 million Zambians he led to Independence from Britain in 1964.

Although his presence in the public space had reduced, mostly due to old age, several Zambians and other international citizens would visit his residence east of the capital Lusaka where the former teacher settled after politics.

The son of a Malawian immigrant preacher David Kaunda, who settled in northern Zambia in the early 1900s, president Kaunda was still highly regarded and Zambians took him as their own even during the time he suffered the humiliation of being declared stateless by his successor, Frederick Chiluba.

Citizens protested the act as being outside the acceptable political manoeuvres. But Chiluba had used a special clause in law, which barred people whose grandparents were not born in Zambia from becoming President. It is a law that cut Kaunda’s political legs, making him ineligible to contest again after he left office in 1991.

At several functions, Kaunda was seen brandishing his famous white handkerchief, which became a trade mark with his Kaunda suits now worn around the continent.

The father of eight (two of his children died earlier) and a vegan of many years, is one of the last post-independence heroes in Africa to depart. Nonetheless, he broke the trend after handing over power peacefully following a defeat at elections.

His critics, however, charged that he ran the country under a restrictive set of economic policies, most of which were dismantled by his successor Fredrick Chiluba.

Born at the Lubwa Mission in Chinsali in Northern Rhodesia, today’s Zambia, he was the last born in a family raised under the strict tenets of the Church of Scotland, where his father was a preacher.


At the apex of political tension due to the one-party state policies, increasing autocracy, and resultant economic downturn that led to shortage of food and other essential products in late 1989 into 1990, it was clear the Kaunda Government was at the exit door. The shortages of essential commodities led to food riots.

Pressure was mounting: the labour movement, students, and other citizens were fed up and set to kick him out.

A group of concerned and mostly educated Zambians gathered at Lusaka’s Garden House Motel on July 19-20, 1990 where they formed the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which later transformed into a political party after Dr. Kaunda cut short his tenure, amended the constitution to end one-party state and called for elections on October 31, 1991.

The MMD and Mr Chiluba emerged victorious, ending Dr Kaunda and his United National Independence Party’s 27 year-reign.

Soon after losing power, tribulations for Dr Kaunda started – the state denied him a retirement house, froze his salary and other entitlements, and his political freedoms were regularly curtailed.

In a self-titled biography Levy Patrick Mwanawasa – An incentive for Prosperity, Zambia’s third President Levy Mwanawasa recounted to his biographer Amos Malupenga that: “…I had to force him [Mr Chiluba] to give Kaunda his first salary [after leaving office]. …I said [to Chiluba], ‘you will also be a former president at some point and you would want to be properly treated’. That is when he gave me a cheque to go and give Kaunda. Dr Kaunda got his first cheque as an entitlement shortly before I resigned as Vice-President.”

“…soon after leaving State House, Dr Kenneth Kaunda was detained and searched on an allegation that he had stolen some books from State House…I advised that it was not necessary to resort to those levels… he was investigated and nothing came out of that investigation.”

But Mr Chiluba and his lieutenants on numerous occasions argued that he did not provide Dr Kaunda with his entitlements because the former president had returned to active politics against the provisions of the Constitution.

Locked out

Dr Kaunda’s attempt to run for presidency again in 1996, five years after he left office, was thwarted when the Chiluba Government amended the constitution – introducing stiffer conditions for one to qualify as a presidential candidate.

Amendment Act No. 18 of 1996 of the Zambian Constitution in Article 34(3)(b) stated: “A person shall be qualified to be a candidate for election as President if…both his parents are Zambians by birth or descent…”

This provision was widely considered to have targeted Dr Kaunda, who was well known to have been born of parents that originally came from the eastern neighbouring country Malawi and settled in northern Zambia’s Chinsali District where his father was a missionary.

Zambians and the international community widely condemned the Chiluba Government for the repressive constitutional amendment.

Despite being technically stopped from running for the presidency and withdrawal of his UNIP party from the elections, Dr Kaunda marshalled political support as leader of the former governing party.

Alongside another opposition leader and lawyer, Dr Rodger Chongwe, the former President was shot in August 1997, in the small mining town of Kabwe, about 140 kilometres north of the capital Lusaka.

Dr Kaunda and Dr Chongwe claimed that state police shot and wounded them after they addressed a political rally.


A few months later another misfortune befell Dr Kaunda. After the failed coup in October 1997, Dr Kaunda and many other opposition leaders were detained on suspicion that they were behind the army-staged coup attempt. The statesman denied any link to the coup.

In the bloody turn of events, Dr Kaunda’s son and widely anticipated heir to the leadership of his father’s party and potential president, Major Wezi Kaunda, was shot dead in a carjacking on November 4, 1999.

The Kaunda family, and Zambians in general, to date consider and insist Major Kaunda, a former army officer, was killed in a political assassination.

Major Wezi Kaunda, once Member of Parliament in the home village of his mother – former first lady Betty Kaunda – in Malambo Constituency in Eastern Province, was at the time of his assassination serving as chairman of UNIP in Lusaka.

His widow, with whom he was with in the vehicle when he arrived at home in a Lusaka suburb at the time armed assassins approached them recounted that Major Kaunda begged the killers: “I am Major Wezi Kaunda. Please take my car, take whatever you want. I am not resisting. Spare my life and my wife. Just take the car.”

The gunmen were reported to have retorted: “We know who you are. Do you think we don't know? Shoot him.”

They ordered him out of the vehicle and shot him multiple times. He was rushed to hospital but died a few hours later. The mystery about Major Wezi Kaunda’s assassination remains unsolved.

The killing of Maj Kaunda escalated the tension between Dr Kaunda and Mr Chiluba.

Dr Kaunda subsequently quit active politics in 2000.

He then focused on peacemaking and mediations in Africa, as well as campaigns to combat HIV/Aids.

In recent years, he was seldom seen in public due to old age. 

As an energetic young man, he played musical instruments and serenaded his wife Betty who died a few years ago.

He also loved to write. He published Zambia Shall Be Free: An Autobiography under Heinemann in 1962.