Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President

A major figure in Northern Rhodesia’s independence movement—a struggle that saw him jailed for a time—Kenneth Kaunda became the first president of Zambia. He later developed a philosophy of African or Zambian Humanism that emphasized mutual aid, trust, and loyalty to the community, which, defined at the national level, meant one-party rule under his authority. Economic problems and the wider conflicts in southern Africa produced disaffection with Kaunda’s leadership, which he voluntarily relinquished in 1991, when Zambia had its first multiparty democratic elections since those that had brought Kaunda to power.

Summary of Event

Central Africa was colonized from the south in the 1880’s. The British South Africa Company, British South Africa Company founded by Cecil Rhodes, was responsible for much of the settlement and early exploitation of the mineral resources of the portion of Central Africa designated as Northern Rhodesia. In effect, the British South Africa Company ran the territory till 1924, when the British government took it over as a “protectorate.” After World War II, the British government tried to integrate the three Central African countries—Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland—into the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland Opposition to this move was fierce among African nationalists, who saw it as a ploy to consolidate white power over the area. Despite this opposition, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formed in 1953, but it lasted only a decade, as opposition to it from Africans began to turn violent. Zambia
Northe rn Rhodesia;independence
Anticolonial movements;Zambia
[kw]Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President (Oct. 24, 1964)
[kw]Zambia’s First President, Kaunda Becomes (Oct. 24, 1964)[Zambias First President, Kaunda Becomes]
[kw]President, Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First (Oct. 24, 1964)
Northern Rhodesia;independence
Anticolonial movements;Zambia
[g]Africa;Oct. 24, 1964: Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President[08240]
[g]Zambia;Oct. 24, 1964: Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President[08240]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 24, 1964: Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President[08240]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Oct. 24, 1964: Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President[08240]
[c]Independence movements;Oct. 24, 1964: Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President[08240]
Kaunda, Kenneth
Nkumbula, Harry
Kapwepwe, Simon
Chiluba, Frederick

Against this background, Kenneth Kaunda lived his formative years. He was born on April 28, 1924, to missionary parents who had moved from Nyasaland (later to become Malawi) to Northern Rhodesia to work for the Presbyterian Lubwa Mission among members of the Bemba tribe. His father was an ordained minister and his mother an African teacher in Northern Rhodesia. After various teaching posts during and after World War II, Kaunda in 1951 became organizing secretary of the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress for the Northern Province. Two years later, he moved to Lusaka, the capital of the protectorate, to become secretary-general of the African National Congress African National Congress, Northern Rhodesian (ANC) under Harry Nkumbula.

Both Kaunda and Nkumbula opposed federation, and their opposition landed Kaunda in jail for the first time. The prison experience made Kaunda far more radical than Nkumbula, and eventually Kaunda split with him to form the Zambian African National Congress Zambian African National Congress
African National Congress, Zambian (ZANC), which was soon banned, leading to Kaunda’s second jail sentence in 1959. On release in 1960, Kaunda founded the party renamed the United National Independence Party United National Independence Party, Zambian (UNIP) and served as its first president. UNIP coordinated a violent civil disobedience campaign against federation.

In the 1962 elections, Kaunda was elected as a UNIP candidate and appointed minister of local government and social welfare in the UNIP-ANC coalition government subsequently formed. After the demise of the federation on the last day of 1963, fresh elections were held under a new constitution to replace the protectorate. In January, 1964, UNIP won these elections, defeating the ANC under Nkumbula by fifty-five seats to ten. Kaunda became the first black African prime minister. After the formal independence of Zambia was declared, Kaunda was made president on October 24. In 1967, Simon Kapwepwe, a longtime colleague of Kaunda, would become the second vice president.


Kaunda’s presidency set a number of priorities. One immediate need was to establish a decent educational system. At independence, Zambia’s system was probably the worst of any former British colony. The University of Zambia was founded in Lusaka in 1966; more campuses would be added in 1979 and 1988.

Even more pressing, however, was the country’s economy. Zambia Influenced by the Soviet Union, Kaunda instituted a Transitional Development Plan, an economic agenda for 1964-1966. Although Zambia had always been rich in copper, much of the benefit of the copper exports had gone to development elsewhere in the federation over the previous ten years. Kaunda had first to win the legal right to appropriate the revenues of the copper, then held by the British South Africa Company. Kaunda’s First National Development Plan (1966-1971) led to the state’s acquiring majority holdings in the mining companies. As a result, larger and larger state companies were formed, until one final merger created Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines in 1982. However, Kaunda’s administration failed to diversify the economy. In 1973, 95 percent of the country’s export earnings were in copper. When the worldwide copper price slumped in 1975, the Zambian economy was exposed. The International Monetary Fund began to make huge loans to Zambia, and finally Zambia became one of the world’s most indebted nations on a per-capita basis.

At the political level, Kaunda followed the path of several of his African neighbors toward a one-party state. In 1972, Simon Kapwepwe left UNIP to form the United Progressive Party, which Kaunda immediately banned. Then, after a countrywide campaign, the Choma Declaration Choma Declaration (1973) was issued on June 27, 1973; it banned all other parties, including the ANC under Nkumbula. Kaunda’s ideology for this declaration was developed under the name of Zambian Humanism, Humanism, Zambian coupling the ideology with something of a personality cult. Although the new policy does not seem to have led to a corruption of power, there is an ongoing debate over the morality of a number of moves Kaunda made against his opponents. Kaunda was eventually defeated—not for abuse of power but for failing to develop an economy that could raise Zambia’s citizens out of abject poverty.

As Kaunda’s hold on power lengthened, he found himself the senior African leader at a continental level. He was chairman of the Organization of African Unity from 1970 to 1973. More important, he became directly involved in a number of the political conflicts in southern Africa, especially Rhodesia’s illegal declaration of independence, the subsequent guerrilla wars, and the final emergence of Zimbabwe; the apartheid regime of South Africa; independence for Namibia; and the conflict in Angola. Although opposed to any dialogue with South Africa, he was pragmatic enough to hold negotiations over Rhodesia and other issues with various South African prime ministers. His espousing of sanctions against South Africa from the mid-1980’s hurt the economy, despite grants in aid from the United Kingdom and other countries.

As the economic situation worsened in the late 1980’s, pressure for a return to multiparty democracy grew. Frederick Chiluba, a powerful trade union figure, founded the Movement for Multiparty Democracy Movement for Multiparty Democracy (Zambia) (MMD), which led in 1991 to the first multiparty elections since Kaunda had come to power. The MMD won 125 of the 150 seats in the legislature; Chiluba himself gained 76 percent of the votes for president. The move signified a post-Cold War Cold War;Zambia departure from single-party states and a return to more Western democratic systems thoughout the region.

In retirement, Kaunda devoted himself to his foundation, which began to help HIV/AIDS HIV/AIDS[HIV AIDS] victims; Kaunda’s own son had been a victim. The AIDS epidemic had hit Central and East Africa harder than anywhere else in the world, and Kaunda’s work to counter the impact of AIDS stood in marked contrast to the lack of effort on the part of other South African leaders, who sought to ignore AIDS.

It might be said that Kaunda’s early high ideals prevented his power from becoming absolute and corrupting. On the other hand, his socialist-inspired economic policies undid much of the good he had sought for his country. Zambia
Northe rn Rhodesia;independence
Anticolonial movements;Zambia

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Guy. Africa: A Modern History. London: Atlantic Books, 2005. A massive overview of the African continent by a distinguished scholar. Kaunda’s place, not only in Zambia but also in southern Africa as a whole, is well documented.
  • Birmingham, D., and P. M. Martin, eds. History of Central Africa. 2 vols. Rev. ed. London: Longmans, 1988. Provides a full account of the settlement and exploitation of the area, including useful background on Kaunda’s early life.
  • Brownrigg, Philip. Kenneth Kaunda. Lusaka, Zambia: Kenneth Kaunda Foundation, 1989. This is not always an objective biography, but the author did consult Kaunda’s personal documents.
  • Chan, Steve. Kaunda and Southern Africa. London: British Academic Press, 1992. Focuses on Kaunda’s achievements across the whole southern part of the continent—for example, as leader of the Front Line States, the organization (no longer in existence) founded to establish black majority rule in the nations of southern Africa.
  • _______. Zambia and the Decline of Kaunda, 1984-1998. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. Traces the decline and failure of Kaunda’s economic and political programs as well as his postpresidential life.
  • Hall, Richard. Zambia. London: Pall Mall Press, 1965. Written immediately after independence, this book gives an almost contemporary account of Kaunda’s rise to power.
  • Hamalengwa, Munyonzwe. Class Struggles in Zambia, 1889-1989, and the Fall of Kenneth Kaunda, 1990-1991. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992. Two books in one, covering Kaunda’s last few years in office in detail.

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