The struggle for freedom is and will always be an entrenched element of African history. For Zambia, it defines the post-colonial narrative and informs our national identity. This is exactly why we need to constantly talk about, critically examine and analytically discuss colonialism and those that made independence on October 24, 1964 a reality. The women and men that fought colonialism not only helped bring about independence for Zambia but, by extension, helped several other African countries gain their freedom as Zambia supported anti-colonialist efforts outside the country. Therefore, Zambia’s independence was significant not only for Zambian people but for the African continent.
Being Africa’s thirty-fifth independent state, Zambia’s transition to independence had been rapid and dramatic like many of its sister nations. To demonstrate this, David C. Mulford writes in his book Zambia: The Politics of Independence 1957 – 1964 that as late as 1958 only eleven Africans were registered as voters in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia); within five years that number exceeded a million. These were the years that Northern Rhodesia’s freedom fighters increased their efforts and better organised themselves in formations that were destined to govern the new Zambia. Unrelenting pressure from black Africans forced British colonialists to the negotiating table. In 1960 Kenneth Kaunda and other members of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) were invited to a conference in London to discuss the fate of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi), also known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Unsatisfactory responses to calls for self-rule by colonial authorities only led to increased civil disobedience. Guided by non-violent principles black Africans used rallies, roadblocks, boycotts and picketing, among other forms of civil disobedience.
These efforts were not in vain. On 23rd October 1964 the Union Jack came down and at one minute past midnight on 24th October the new Zambian flag, was raised during a massive ceremony at Lusaka’s Independence Stadium. Forty years after it was declared a British protectorate, Northern Rhodesia ceased to exist and it was replaced by a new a nation. Fifty-four years after independence it can be easy to take our freedom for granted. Especially for those who were born after 1964 and never had to live under colonialism. However, we must not be complacent and endeavour to preserve the memories of those who fought hard for an independent Zambia.
This article is about some of the notable women and men who contributed to what we know today as independent Zambia. These are only a fraction of the innumerable people whose efforts brought about a free Zambia. We have heard of some names loudly proclaimed while we have only heard whispers of others. Nakatindi Nganga, Elijah Mudenda, Chibesa Kankasa, Mainza Chona and Grey Zulu are the heroes we discuss in this article.
Of the five heroes featured only two, Kankasa and Zulu, are still alive. This points to the urgency we must take in documenting the stories of the people who fought for the freedom while they are still with us. These are stories necessary for the current and future generations.
Matthias Mainza Chona was the first black African from Northern Rhodesian to qualify as a lawyer. He led a splinter group of the Africa National Congress (ANC) together with Titus Mukupo, a prominent journalist. In 1959, the party eventually merged with UNIP, which was formed a few months earlier. Chona was elected president of UNIP during Kaunda’s incarceration, later stepping down to the position of deputy president in 1960 after Kaunda’s release. He served as vice president of Zambia from 1970 to 1973 and prime minister on two occasions: from 25 August 1973 to 27 May 1975 and from 20 July 1977 to 15 June 1978. He also held various government positions, including justice minister (1964–1968), home affairs minister (1968–1969) and minister of legal affairs and attorney-general (1975–1978).
Nakatindi Nganga Yeta was the first woman to contest a parliamentary seat in 1962, emerging victorious and becoming the country’s first female MP. In 1966, she was installed as chieftainess of Sesheke district in Western Province by the Barotse Royal Establishment (BRE), being the daughter of Yeta III King of Barotseland. While women’s role in the struggle for freedom is often attributed to the support rendered in the private domain of their homes, little is celebrated of the women who believed that they were just as capable as men to take up leadership positions. Nakatindi Nganga is a demonstration of women’s empowerment in the days before Zambia knew her independence. While both colonialism and certain cultural practices held women back some women rose above the limitations put on them. Nakatindi Nganga was one such woman. Not to be confused with Princess Nakatindi Wina her eldest daughter (also known as Mirriam Nganga) who inherited her mother’s name after her death.
Alexander Grey Zulu (pictured middle) was one of five of UNIP’s national trustees. He was the first parliamentary secretary in the formation of Northern Rhodesia’s first African Government. Zulu is considered to have exerted greater influence on Kenneth Kaunda, both at the beginning of the independence struggle and right through the 27 years of his presidency. After serving in several positions, Zulu was appointed minister of commerce and industry 1964; minister of transport and works 1964; minister of mines and cooperatives 1965-67; minister of home affairs 1967-70; minister of defence 1970-73; secretary general of the party (equivalent to vice president) 1973-78; Secretary of State for defense and security 1979-85; secretary general 1986-1991.
Chibesa Kankasa (pictured standing), also called Mama Kankasa, played a prominent role in both the social and political aspects of the struggle. With her husband Timothy Kankasa, himself actively involved in the indepence struggle, she hosted many prominent freedom fighters in their home. Some of these include, among others, Kaunda, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe and Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula. Following increased interactions with these and other people Kankasa endeavoured to play a bigger role in the struggle, beyond her home. She served in several government capacities including that of Member of the Central Committee (MCC) the highest policy making body in the ruling UNIP government. She served as minister for women’s affairs from 1969 to 1988. Late president Patrick Mwanawasa honoured Kankasa by awarding her the Order of the Eagle: Second Division.
Elijah Haatuakali Kaiba Mudenda served as the second prime minister of Zambia from 1975 to 1977. In those days, the president was head of state while the prime minister was head of government. Elijah Mudenda was appointed prime minister after Mainza Chona’s resignation. Prior to his appointment as prime minister he had also served as minister of agriculture, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs and was one of the most educated politicians at the time. He was considered one of UNIP’s most talented ‘new’ men having been a Cambridge graduate and having only joined the party six months before the 1962 general elections. Having only joined active politics in 1962, Elijah Mudenda was regarded more as a technocrat than a politician
For Zambians, the struggle for freedom is a narrative that has been told several times over one’s lifetime, usually starting from our primary school days. However, it was shocking to find little to no detailed information about both the celebrated and the unsung heroes of Zambia’s fight for independence. This is even more striking when it comes to records of female freedom fighters. While the women and men highlighted here, including many others who have not been mentioned in this piece, contributed immeasurably to the country we know today as Zambia, future generations will likely have difficulty piecing together the puzzle once everyone from that era is long gone. Special acknowledgement goes to two publications that have helped to fill in the gaps for this piece: Africa: Another Side of the Coin by Andrew Sardanis, and Zambia: The Politics of Independence 1957 – 1964 by David C. Mulford.