Kenneth Kaunda: Biography, Presidency, Accomplishments, & Facts

Kenneth Kaunda (1924-2021)

Birth and early life

Born Kenneth David Kaunda on April 28, 1924, in Chinsali, Northern Rhodesia (modern-day Zambia), this future president of Zambia grew up with seven siblings.

Kenneth Kaunda’s parents were Reverend David Kaunda and Helen Kaunda. Both his parents were educated and respected people in the Bemba community in northern Zambia. For example, his mother was the first African woman to hold a teaching position in colonial Zambia. His father, who was born in Nyasaland (now Malawi), was an ordained Church of Scotland missionary and a school headmaster.

Between 1941 and 1943, the young Kaunda studied at the Munali Training Center, a teacher training school situated in Lusaka. Upon graduating, he took up a teaching position at Upper Primary School in Lubwa. In less than a year, he had risen to become the headmaster of the school.

In the mid-1940s, he was worked as a teacher in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In 1948, he went on to establish a farmers’ cooperative in Mufulira, a copper mining area. Around this time, he also served as the head teacher at Mufulira Upper School.

Early political career

The early 1950s saw Kaunda make an entry into the political arena as he was involved in the founding of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress (ANC). The political party was the first leading pro-independence organization in Northern Rhodesia.

On many occasions, Kaunda and Nkumbula were imprisoned for what the colonial authorities described as subversive acts. However, none of those intimidation techniques could deter the resolute minds of Kaunda and many Rhodesia ANC leaders.

Reasons why Kenneth Kaunda left the Northern Rhodesian ANC

In 1958, a rift between top ANC officials, including one between himself and Nkumbula, forced him to leave the ANC. It was alleged that Nkumbula was giving a lot of listening ear to white liberals, who reasoned that the Zambia’s path to independence had to be done in a gradual process as many of the indigenous population at the time were not educated.

Kaunda and his allies also accused Nkumbula of acting in a very autocratic manner. Owing to this and many other factors, Kaunda left the Rhodesian African National Congress.

Zambian African National Congress (ZANC)

After the split in 1958, Kaunda established his own political party called the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC). No sooner had the party been founded than did the colonial government place a ban on it. The ZANC was accused of using militant policy against colonial rule. Kaunda’s strong opposition to proposals to form a federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland also incurred the wrath of the authorities.

By 1960, Kenneth Kaunda had amassed a huge following among Africans in Northern Rhodesia. He was invited in December 1960 to participate in discussions in a London about issues pertaining to the status of the colonies. Kind courtesy to his hard-fought campaign, Britain announced in 1961 that it had commenced the process to decolonize Zambia.


As the leader of UNIP, Kaunda went into the first major National Assembly elections (in 1962) with a lot of confidence. He steered his party to clinch a second position as they won 14 out of 45 seats in the parliamentary body. He collaborated with the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress to form a government.

In 1964, Kaunda led the UNIP to a landslide victory by winning 55 of the 75 seats in parliament. With a comfortable parliamentary majority, Kaunda remained focus on securing Zambia’s independence. That dream was finally realized on October 24, 1964, when Zambia became independent. Thus, Kaunda went on to become the first president of Zambia. He was assisted by Reuben Kamanga as vice president.

Read more: Major Accomplishments of President Kenneth Kaunda

Kaunda’s declining popularity and economic woes

Beginning around 1968, the Kaunda administration introduced massive economic reforms as it hoped to nudge the economy into a slightly planned one. The Mulungushi Reforms, as it was known as, saw the Zambia government take majority equity holding in several foreign-owned firms operating in Zambia. Those companies were then placed in the hands of the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). For example the Anglo American Corporation and the Rhodesian Selection Trust, after the takeover, became the Nchanga Consolidated Copper Mines (NCCM) and Roan Consolidated Mines (RCM) respectively. Those two consolidated companies then became the Mining Development Corporation (MINDECO).

Many insurance companies operating in the country were turned over to the Finance and Development Corporation (FINDECO). Had it not been for their hard fought efforts, international companies like Barclays and Standard Chartered would have ended up in the hands of Kaunda’s government.

By merging IDC, FINDECO and MINDE, President Kaunda created Zambia Industrial and Mining Corporation (ZIMCO), one of the largest companies in sub-Saharan Africa. He then appointed himself chairman of the board.

Obviously such moves by President Kaunda ultimately spelled doom for Zambians, who at the time had start experiencing severe hardships due to the rising oil prices and the declining copper prices. Copper was Zambia’s chief export earner, accounting for about 95% of its export. By 1975, the earnings from copper had lost about half of its value. Soon Zambia was notched into a deplorable balance-of-payment situation. It had the second highest debt to GDP ratio in the world.

In a bid to tackle the economic problems, Kenneth Kaunda began removing price controls. The nation’s currency, the Kwacha, was devalued. His government also had to rein in on its spending by removing many subsidies in food and other basic items. Those budget cuts caused food prices to shoot up, resulting in increased dissent in the form of riots and unrest.

His privatization programs and efforts to make the economy less planned could do very little to turn Zambia’s slumping economy around.

Kenneth Kaunda | Image: U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Kenneth Kaunda at the White House in 1978

How President Kenneth Kaunda turned Zambia into a one-party state

In addition to the worsening economic situation, Kaunda had to deal a number of unrest, particularly the Lumpa uprising led by Alice Lenshina. The Lumpa Church, an organization that blended Christianity and animist beliefs, became a thorn in the Zambian government’s flesh as the church had rejected what they called “earthy government” and set up its own courts. Kaunda quickly banned the Lumpa Church before it could cause further dissent among the people.

Gradually, President Kaunda started showing glimpses of authoritarian rule as he continuously clamped down on any form of opposition. Following the 1968 election violence, his government banned all parties, except UNIP.

In 1972, he set up a commission, headed by Mainza Chona, to draft a new constitution that in effect made Zambia a one-party state. Once the work of the Chona Commission was complete, Kaunda successfully crippled the Zambia ANC by poaching its famed leader Njumbula. Kaunda meticulously clamped down on the United Progressive Party, led by Simon Kapwepwe who had departed from UNIP.

In the December 1973 elections, Kaunda was the only candidate. That basically continued for almost two decades. Thus he secured more than 80% of the votes in the 1978, 1983 and 1988 presidential elections. Kaunda defended his emergency powers and the constitutional changes as means to deal with violent tribalism.

Return of multiparty democracy and 1991 election loss

Amidst his authoritarian rule, the country’s economy was in a bad state as agriculture production was down, prices of food stuffs skyrocketing, and the unemployment situation very dire. There were even rumors of coups against him in the early 1980s.

With foreign aid and investments from developed countries drying up fast, there were calls, both domestic and international, for Kaunda to step down. His government was accused of serious corruption.

In 1990, President Kaunda announced that presidential elections would be held in 1991. He also made a number of constitutional amendments that allowed for the reintroduction of multiparty democracy.

Considering how much Zambians were dissatisfied with his later years, Kaunda and his UNIP suffered a landslide defeat at the hand of Frederick Chiluba, the leader of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). Kaunda could only secure 24% of the votes as against Chiluba’s 75%. In the parliamentary election, his party UNIP won just 25 out of 159 seats.

On November 2, 1991, Kaunda was succeeded by Chiluba. By so doing Kaunda became the second African president to peacefully hand power over to a new government. He comes in second behind Benin’s Mathieu Kérékou.

Kaunda’s Zambian Humanism

As a result, there was very little opposition against his government’s push to promulgate a new constitution on August 25, 1973. He then set out to develop a very strong personality cult similar to the type many dictators do. He called his ideology “Zambian Humanism”, a nationalist-socialist ideology similar to the type Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere implemented in their respective countries.


On June 17, 2021, Kenneth Kaunda passed away aged 97. The founder of Zambia is said to have died of pneumonia at Maina Soko Military Hospital in the capital Lusaka. Kaunda was survived by 30 grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren.

More Kenneth Kaunda Facts

During his presidency, on several occasions, he requested from the U.S. to provide Zambia with nuclear weapons and other modern weapons. The U.S. vehemently turned down his request. So Kaunda turned his attention to the Soviet Union in order to obtain a number of fighter jets.

From 1970 to 1973, he was the chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement. He even hosted a summit in Lusaka in 1970.

He was the chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) (now the African Union) from 1970 to 1973.

Following the death of one of his children in the 1980s, he stepped up his campaign against HIV/AIDS in Zambia and across Africa.

The first decade in opposition saw him heavily criticize the Chiluba administration and the MMD.

In 1996, he tried to run for office, however, he was made ineligible due to a number of constitutional amendments introduced by the governing party.

In December, 1997, he was briefly arrested after he it was alleged that he was involved in inciting an attempted coup.

In 1999, a Zambian court stripped of his Zambian citizenship, citing his parents’ Malawian roots. A year later, his citizenship was restored.

In 2000, he stepped down from his position as UNIP’s president. In the

From 2002 to 2004, he served as the Balfour African President-in-Residence at Boston University.

In 2003, President Levy Mwanawasa awarded him the Grand Order of the Eagle in Zambia.

Due to his nonviolent protests and marches during Zambia’s independence struggle, Kenneth Kaunda was popularly called the “Gandhi of Africa” or “African Gandhi”. He has also been called the “weeping president” due to his very high propensity to shed tears when talk about death and other tragic incidents. In 1980, he openly wept at the funeral of Josip Broz Tito, the long-time leader of the former Yugoslavia.

Zambia’s former President Kenneth Kaunda was sometimes known as the “weeping president” due to his tendency to break down in tears whenever he would talk about death, poverty and the general suffering of Africa’s people.

He earned his PhD in political science at the Rusangu University (formerly known as the Zambia Adventist University).

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