Kenneth Kaunda 1924-2021: Farewell to Zambia’s best known Humanist and autocrat

Posted: 23 June, 2021 | Category: Current News Category: Features & Analysis Category: Uncategorized

Kenneth Kaunda with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (on left) with Chinese friends who build a railway that linked Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. (Picture: Trevor Grundy Archives).


By Trevor Grundy

Economist say that Zambia was born in October 1964 with a copper spoon in its mouth but that within a decade Kenneth Kaunda had swallowed it.

That grand gulp of the mineral rich nation’s wealth set his landlocked country on the path towards bankruptcy after the oil hike and collapse of copper prices in 1973. After that, President Kaunda declared a one-party state and set in motion a personal rule that leaned towards autocracy until his political decline and fall in 1991.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh 1997, I was staggered when I heard that there had been an attempt in Zambia to kill a man I  once admired. A bullet grazed his temple. Another nearly killed his friend and colleague Roger Chongwe. KK was in prison and only the personal intervention by Julius Nyerere got him out again.

Kenneth Kaunda with one of his famous handkerchiefs

Only a handful of CHOGM officials gave a toss about that, as Tony Blair bleated about the wonderful partnership between Britain under New Labour and Africa’s new democracy-minded leaders.

Since his death on June 17 from pneumonia, British obituary writers have drawn on pieces written years ago by his friends and fans. They are full of praise about this humble, guitar- strumming Christian.

His achievement as a fighter against colonialism and his campaign to open debate on the spread of AIDS are well known.

President Kaunda watched by  President Mobutu of the Congo (DRC)

An obituary in the leftwards-leaning The Guardian newspaper was full of praise for the Zambian.

In a piece written long before his own death last year, the former head of the Africa Bureau, Guy Arnold, described the man universally known as KK as a person of great presence and charm and one who played a notable role as leader of the Frontline States in their long confrontation between independent black Africa and the white-dominated south of the continent, which came to an end only in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa.

Arnold wrote – “He was a consummate politician and spent much of his time shuffling his top party figures around in a chess game to balance ethnic groups and their claims to power-sharing: he also possessed a ruthless streak which he deployed towards opponents, although his abhorrence of violence was a rarity in the era.”

Obituaries, full of praise to the man who took on Rhodesia’s Ian Smith and who hosted so many liberation movements, mention that he was an  emotional man who often wept in public.

When they saw what he’d done to a once amazingly promising economy after only  a few years in power, ordinary people also reached for their handkerchiefs.

Kaunda cheered himself up by singing hymns, psalms and folk-songs.

KK the guitarist and singer: Psalm 23 was his favourite

He was a devout Christian with Eastern mystic tendencies.

I lived and worked in Zambia twice, the first time from 1966-1968 and the second from 1974-1976.

The people were nearly always welcoming.  Most of their politicians (just like the ones here in Britain) were on-the-make second-raters, many of them in the pay of Lonrho or doing deals with white Rhodesians and white South Africans while publicly denouncing white rule in Salisbury and apartheid in Pretoria.

Imagine what it was like. Everywhere, political tinkers, financial tailors, mercenary soldiers and spies in their dozens.

All posing as champions of African freedom.


KK the golfer at his nine hole course at State House

One of the things the obituary writers (in the UK) failed to mention was this man’s dangerous lack of understanding about economics and his gullibility.

A former editor of the independent Weekly Post newspaper, Robinson Makayi, said tricksters and conmen understood KK perfectly.

When a there’s-a- big-deal- around- the corner American came to Lusaka in 1989 with a scheme to turn grass into oil, Kaunda handed over thousands of US dollars. The man promptly disappeared with the boodle.

Shortly before his political demise in 1991, Kaunda was hip-deep in scheme with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to build an agrarian Utopia among Zambia’s six million poor.

Kenneth Kaunda in London in 1960 with his friend John Papworth who introduced the young KK to aspects of life in Swinging London. far from staid, white-run Northern Rhodesia. Papworth went on to become one of KK’s leading advisers at State House and one of the men who helped safeguard the Russian spy George Blake after his escape from a prison in the UK (Picture: Trevor Grundy Archives).

Said Makayi – ”The gurus came to him with this idea to put up this funny project of theirs and found the president very, very receptive to the idea. They are very clever. They see the psychology of the man and they exploit it.”

When KK did a deal with the Hindu mystic who’d tried to con The Beatles in India, opposition party spokesman Derrick Chitala said – “ I don’t think he’s normal anymore.”

It was a reference to KK, not to the Maharishi who persuaded Kaunda to undertake the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Project.

The cost? Non-one knows for sure.

Zambians celebrate their independence from Britain on the night of October 24, 1964


With an expensive cocktail of Eastern mysticism and earth-friendly farming, the ’plan’ was to divide Zambia into areas and then storm Heaven  with Transcendental Meditation and Thought to make things grow, thus filling empty stomachs and relieving Zambia’s crushing poverty.

Fred Bridgland, then the Africa correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, remembers the election campaign of 1991 when Kaunda recruited the Maharishi Yogi to fly cross-legged over the country and divide it up into neat sequences devoted to different economic and spiritual objectives.

Decades later, Bridgland said,  with a smile in is voice – “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

To which the people of Zambia might respond -“Thank God for that!”

Man of the people and an example to Rhodesia and South Africa.

Kaunda greets a white friend at Ndola Airport in 1966 (Picture: Trevor Grundy)

Zambia’s space programme was also costly and bizarre, that along with a Kaunda-State House project to popularise Humanism by hiring some of the team that popularised the famous You’ll wonder where the yellow went / When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent jingle on TV and radio.

Sadly, after an extensive tour by air of Zambia and weeks in an expensive hotel in Lusaka the well-fed and highly-paid jinglers left the country.

But Zambian taxpayers were left jingle-less,  ignorant about an expensive farce reporters were ordered not to write about.

At that time, African ministers of information told foreign correspondents that any story that made light of African leaders by publicising corruption and incompetence fuelled the apartheid machine in South Africa.

Anyhow, what use was a foreign correspondent to a newspaper, TV station or broadcasting network if he or she fell foul of the ruling party?


An avowed spiritualist, Kaunda had his own private Indian faith healer with who he worshipped daily in a private temple next to his nine hole golf course at State House.

M.A. Ranganathan – he described himself as a philosopher, scientist and holistic health consultant – told bewildered journalists that he decided to devote his whole life serving Kaunda.

He’d been inspired to do that when he  met the Zambian leader and saw a  golden halo around his head.

Kaunda is welcomed to Zimbabwe by President Canaan Banana and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe

I worked for the Times  of Zambia in different parts of that country between 1966 and 1968, went north to Tanzania then Kenya, London and in 1974 returned to Zambia as business editor of The Times of Zambia.

Second time round coincided with the start of the ill-fated “détente“ exercise and one was never sure who you’d meet in one of the local pubs or hotels.

The Rhodesian head of Ian Smith’s secret police, Ken Flower, sent a personal message to the head of the Zambian Special Branch expressing regret that Josiah Tongogara – the most hated man in white Rhodesia after Mugabe and Nkomo –  had been arrested by the police  after the murder of Herbert Chitepo in March 1975.

In his memoir Serving Secretly (John Murray, 1987) Ken Flower wrote – “In the circumstances, Mugabe could not be blamed for later labelling Chitepo’s death as ‘an act done through or by direct participation of the Zambian Government.’ ”

Flower flew to Lusaka to prepare the ground for talks between Ian Smith and Joshua Nkomo and told an official at State House that Tongogara had nothing to do with Chitepo’s death.

On another occasion, several of us  ‘locals’ had a drink with the head of BOSS, Colonel (or was it General) Henrik van den Bergh at the Inter-continental Hotel in Lusaka.

I sked him why apartheid  laws were in place considering there was such a large mixed race community in South Africa.

He looked down from a great height and in an unforgettable sentence delivered with a completely straight face, said –“The reason why we have such laws is to protect our young African ladies from the lustiness of visiting Dutch seamen.”

Roll over John le Carre.



Détente did not survive. Kaunda did, albeit narrowly.

The student crisis if 1976 related to Kaunda’s controversial support for UNITA’s Jonas Savimbi as opposed to the socialist/Marxist MPLA in Angola.

Kaunda’s meeting with Vorster on the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls Bridge in August 1975 marked détente’s climax.

I stood and watched as a  Zambian schoolboy with a placard stood before the two men. On it were the words – Vorster you are great today.


KK: One of the key Frontline State leaders at a conference in Zimbabwe (Picture: Trevor Grundy)

A build-up of tension on the campus at Lusaka culminated on January 15, 1976 in a demonstration by about 300 students in support of the MPLA.  The students’ union described Zambia’s support for UNITA as “opportunist, hypocritical, imperialist and impossible.”

It described Savimbi as a “bearded Quisling” and accused Kaunda of “criminal treachery.”

The more KK was loved in Whitehall and the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office, the more he was hated in Zambia.

To survive, KK made a broadcast invoking full powers of the state of emergency. White expatriate lecturers at the university were drop-kicked out of the country and as the students predicted, the Zambian government was forced to recognise the MPLA in Angola but soon after that, Kaunda was making conciliatory noises in relation to the Soviet Union which he’d earlier described as a “plundering tiger” in Africa.

And from then onward his blundering incompetence as a national leader and economic strategist were put down to his support for the liberation of Rhodesia and South Africa, South West Africa ( Namibia) and what was left of Portugal’s  colonies in Africa.

On that one – Let history judge.

It’s still far too early for any of us to pass meaningful judgment on that time or those who played major roles within it.

Too many people with special interests are writing books about it all,  spreading  what the American poet Louis MacNeice called “the myth of themselves.”

South Africa’s John Vorster with Kenneth Kaunda at at the Victoria Falls Conference in August, 1975


Between 1974 and my departure from Zambia in 1976, I learned to respect ordinary Zambians but detest (now and forever) the two-faced diplomats, special branch spooks, M16, CIA, Mossad and KGB jaw-waggers who lied for a living while pretending to do it all for some great, noble,  cause.

At the height of the détente exercise Lusaka was attracting so-called international journalists from around the world.

KK was increasingly unpopular, especially with students at the university who branded him a sell- out and a rogue for doing deals with John Vorster.

Little of that has so far appeared in obituaries about a leader who started well but who ended disastrously.

But let us never forget what got  Doris Lessing  through the bad times – African laughter.

At the height of KK’s unpopularity with ordinary people, someone at State House suggested a media breakfast to improve his image where in mattered most – in Britain and the Commonwealth.

The exact date escapes me.

KK had finished a round of golf.  Prayers were over and it was time for breakfast. Half the Cabinet and some MPs were there as waiters.

It was like a first century Christian eucharist with KK doing his Jesus look- alike act.

One of the ministers wore a chef’s hat and a State House adviser to KK, John Papworth, was busy with a boiling kettle  handing out tea bags.

A local journalist recoverin g from the night before asked what we should do if Kaunda wanted to wash our feet.

He didn’t do that but instead picked up a guitar and started to sing – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

One of the American hacks muttered – “Sweet Lord, not that again.”

After the bacon and eggs, KK said we should all taste good fresh Zambian bread covered in good fresh Zambian honey.

“Bring in the honey, Mark,” ordered KK.

In it came on a copper tray.

Spread, spread. Munch, munch.

One of the Canadians raised his hand and said that on the honey pot there was a label that said Made in Bloemfontein.

The man with the ZBC camera was told to stop shooting.

“Bring in the Zambian honey,” said KK, embarrassed and angry.

The official returned with a pot without a label.


Meantime, keep the praise tap open.  Soon enough, some young  and fearless Zambian historian will turn it off again.