Monday, May 20, 2024

Kenneth Kaunda’s strange place in Zambian history


By Michael Chishala

The year was 1982. The place was Jacaranda Primary School. The occasion was a normal day of learning in grade four in what was one of the good Primary Schools in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. We were in the middle of a lesson when we were interrupted by the teacher and asked to go to assembly where the whole school gathered. Next thing, we found ourselves walking down Omelo Mumba Road to get to Great East Road. We finally arrived at and then we waited. And waited…. And waited….
After what seemed like an eternity, there it was. The presidential convoy coming round a curve barreling down Great East Road, driving from the East of Lusaka going towards the Lusaka Central Business District. There was a black Mercedes Benz surrounded by vehicles and motor cycles with the window rolled down. We all rushed to the road side and gathered there. Then I saw him. Sitting at the back smiling as usual and waving his trademark white handkerchief. The moment seemed to freeze in time, even though it only lasted a few brief seconds.
We had just spent about two hours by the road-side waiting to welcome the great leader who had earlier landed at Lusaka International Airport as it was called back then. He had this habit of always being late for everything. We were hungry and tired. There were no toilets, food or drinks and we had to go pee behind trees, both boys and girls.

As we walked back to School, about 1.3 km away, my young mind, not even yet a teen began to wonder what was the logic of dragging entire schools out of class just go stand by the side of the road and wave at the great leader as he passed by. Was this really the best use of our time? Did it not occur to the great leader that all this hero worship was unnecessary and just perpetuating a cult leadership?
Then I grew up, went to Secondary School and in that period, I witnessed first hand as the nation crumbled and rapidly deteriorated in every way, such that by 1986, the country had gone to the proverbial dogs. I would walk into the Shoprite and Game of the day, NIEC Stores, Mwaiseni Stores and ZNBC. Empty shelves greeted me. We had to queue up for hours to buy basic commodities like sugar, cooking oil and even tea. Things got so bad at one time I remember Zambians would get sugar and burn it on a tablespoon with a candle underneath until it turned black carbon and it would be used as “tea”. Other times there was not enough sugar and people would use salt instead to eat porridge.
1968 was a watershed year. The prices of mealie-meal had been increased suddenly by a not so small amount. Spontaneous riots broke out in the Copperbelt Province and there was chaos and mayhem. The military were sent in and stopped the riots after several days of looting and carnage.
The administration of the great leader run out of ideas and things went from bad to worse every year as the nation teetered on the brink of total collapse with economic statistics comparable to war-torn countries. The great one survived and remained in power.
Then 1990 happened, and it was far more consequential to his presidency. I was sitting in class in grade twelve at Kabulonga Boys Secondary School during another lesson and looked out of the window only to see people running in Kabulonga Road carrying all sorts of things. Next thing, a huge mob of Munali Boys students who had walked all the way invaded our school and began going class to class telling everyone to leave. It soon became clear that rioting and looting had broken out again.
They came into our class in the middle of a lesson making noise telling us to leave and join the party. We looked at each other and the teacher and then one by one, we got up and left the lesson. We quickly made our way to what was Kabulonga Supermarket, meeting people running with everything from TVs to food and drinks. There was mayhem everywhere with all sorts of things strewn all along the way, including baby diapers.
We arrived at the junction between Kabulonga Road and Chindo/Bishops Road and my eyes were greeted by what I can best describe as ants going in and out of a nest. Hundreds of people had broken into the famous upmarket supermarket meant for the wealthy and privileged. This was their chance to become like them for once. People were going in and out, looting and taking everything they could carry.
Our Kabulonga Boys and Girls students had joined in the looting and before long, plenty of lagers, whiskeys and brandys made their way out and the boys proceeded to drink a toast to the downfall of the great leader. This went on for some time before a police van finally showed up. It was coming down from the West very slowly, so slow that it gave everyone plenty of time to smash, grab and run. The vehicle drove even more slowly into the car park and parked. One officer took out a big gun and fired into the air. We all knew it was for show because the paramilitary police were not in a hurry to arrest anyone. Everyone got away.

I then quickly made my way back to school and found empty bottles of every spirit known to man in the school bins and corridors. I saw plenty of inebriated boys enjoying every second of this rare occasion. I got on my sports bike and cycled through the streets of Lusaka. I went down Burma Road and found people looting what is today Interland Filing Station. This was right behind Arrakan Barracks and there were plenty of soldiers watching from the fence and doing absolutely nothing. The Police and every law enforcement agency just sat and watched.
I cycled past and went through Kabwata and Kamwala and found all the Indian shops had been looted. In those days, all shops had big open windows and people just smashed them and walked inside and grabbed whatever they could lay their hands on. It was carnage on a scale I had never seen. And that is why to this day, all of the small retail shops in the Lusaka CBD have big ugly metal things covering them. It was all because of that one day in the last week of June 1990.
The looting continued for a whole week, exacerbated by the fact that the great leader had sent most of the law enforcement to the Copperbelt, in anticipation of another round of looting since mealie meal prices had just gone up again by a large amount. This second iteration of looting in the capital city was on a much grander scale than the 1986 riots in the Copperbelt. Lusakans were commended by our Kopala cousins for not being docile as we usually used to be.
There was no school and the week ended with an attempted coup by Mwamba Luchembe who went and briefly took over the airwaves at ZNBC, announcing that the great leader had been overthrown. There was massive jubilations and celebrations in the streets. I rushed out to Chilimbulu Road and found hundreds of people in the streets celebrating. They were walking in the middle of the road and cars were busy honking everywhere. Almost everyone was glad to see the great leader kicked out of power.
But the celebrations were shortlived as Grey Zulu, the number two to Kaunda went on ZNBC TV and announed that the great one was still in power and that the rogue Luchembe had been arrested and his coup thwarted. I remember how people were upset and angry with Luchembe for not carrying out his coup successfully.
Then just over a year later on 31st October 1991, Zambians unanimously gave KK and his UNIP government the boot and elected a new government (with 74% of the vote) led by Frederick JT Chiluba, a former Trade Unionist who had opposed the great leader’s tyrannical rule and been locked up before, just like almost everyone who opposed the great one had found themselves in jail.
All my childhood and teenage memories of that era are full of scenes of grinding poverty, bad dirty stinking hospitals, roads full of potholes, empty supermarket shelves, brutal paramilitary police, fear of the dreaded Shushushu at the so-called “Red Brick” building (the intelligence services) and not forgetting the violent UNIP vigilantes, a precursor to the modern day cadres under the MMD and PF governments.
That is my memory of Kenneth David Buchizya Kaunda, a far cry from today’s unfortunate revisionist history that whitewashes all his sins and paints him as some sort of “great” Messiah.
But that’s a story for another day.

The author is a Zambian analyst, blogger and IT Specialist with interests in Politics, Economics and Philosophy.


  1. As the author put it himself, it is his memory and what he remembers. He also forgets that he was a minor who did not fully understand what was going on during this era. KK fought many battles for the freedom we are abusing today. Without the sacrifices, Zambia would have been a w@r z0ne. You cannot tell the Kaunda or Mugabe story without looking deep into the British interference and illegal s@nctions. Your description of empty shelves was sold to you as mismanagement of the economy but we quickly brush away the reasons why Zambia was under sanctions. Imagine Zambia being sanct1oned for supporting freedom fighters such as Mandela? I, for sure was one of those who misunderstood this giant of a man until I discovered the forces he was dealing with at the time.

  2. Yes KK ran down the economy. He was only human like all of us. He was not an angel. Most importantly he did not steal. And he did far much better than Lungu, Sata, Rupiah
    Mwanawasa and FTJ (arranged in order from worst to better on the economic scorecard)

  3. I also remember whenever the great leader visited kabwe the entire town had to be shut down as everybody had to go and line up along the roadside to welcome him. All businesses, offices, schools etc etc were forced to close by unip vigilantes just to go and wait with little paper flags in the hot sun for more than 3 hours to wave at him as he passed by those 10 seconds. That’s why when the chance came to vote him out in 1991 we wholeheartedly took it.

  4. Winston Churchill was rubbish at running the economy but British people remember him for the war effort
    Tony Blair w@r cr1minal
    George Bush w@r crim1nal
    Obama gender identity crim1nal
    Jo Biden w@r criminal
    Bill Clinton w@r and infidelity cr1minal
    Can you compare these things to super Ken? learn to be grateful at times. KK was a giant, love him or loathe him.


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