Remembering Mwansa Kapwepwe


JANUARY 26, 1980 started like any other, but somewhere in the mining town of Kalulushi legendary freedom fighter Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe was dying from a stroke that struck and left him paralysed two days earlier while visiting his daughter doctor, Sampa Kapwepwe.

He was visiting associates and family on the Copperbelt from Chinsali in the Northern Province where he settled after resigning for the second time from the United National Independence Party (UNIP), then under the hand of first republican president Kenneth Kaunda.

As fast-moving as death notices are known to be, the whole of Zambia was engulfed in the news that the man, who relentlessly was at the helm of the fight for independence along other notables long dead and the surviving few, had died.

His death struck within a decade of ideological differences that threatened the then ruling party with a major division,leading to the formation of the splinter United Progressive Party (UPP) with Mr Kapwepwe as its president.

Thirty years on, memories of Mr Kapwepwe, his political activities and life are still alive among all former freedom fighters and ordinary Zambians who believed in him and his political ideologies.

It is the reason the commemoration under the theme “a visionary cultured icon – 30 years down the memory lane” was held on April 14 at Kitwe’s Buchi Hall to remember the death of the legendary freedom fighter of all times – Mr Kapwepwe.

Despite luck-lustre publicity, the event drew a considerable crowd of former freedom fighters from within the Copperbelt and Lusaka, while a handful of the younger generation with the interest of Zambian political history at heart also attended.

They were treated to a revisit of Mr Kapwepwe’s early life, his involvement in the struggle for Zambia’s independence, his life as a husband and father, his resignation from UNIP and formation of the UPP until his death in Kalulushi.

The commemoration was therefore held so that both the old and young can familiarise themselves with insights and strategies of the fight for independence besides understanding who Mr Kapwepwe was and what he stood for in the whole liberation struggle and independent Zambia.

An audible silence engulfed Buchi Hall as veteran John Bwembya recounted Mr Kapwepwe’s life, opening his memorial lecture by quoting Harry Truman who once said: “you can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not mind who gets the credit”.

Who then was Mr Kapwepwe, who accomplished much in his life but never got the credit?

He is the man revered to have orchestrated moves, along with such notables as Dr Kaunda, the late Harry Mwanga Nkumbula, Rueben Kamanga, Nalumino Mundia, Arthur Wina and many others for not only the successful attainment of Zambia’s independence, but also the freedom of neighbouring countries who, like the then Northern Rhodesia, were under the yoke of colonialism.

Born in Chinsali on April 12, 1922, Mr Kapwepwe first met and befriended Dr Kaunda who would later be the first republican president. Both of them were Chinsali natives who went on to train as teachers at Lubwa Mission.

Done with their training, Mr Kapwepwe went to teach in Kitwe at Wusakile Primary School. By then, he had already started to show resentment at the way the colonial masters ruled the people of Zambia.

At the age of 26 in 1948, Mr Kapwepwe was part of the group that formed the first opposition party in Zambia called the Northern Rhodesia African Congress which was later to become the African National Congress (ANC).

The formation of the party marked the beginning of Mr Kapwepwe’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and so the politics of the country and from the onset, he became a member of the national executive and secretary of the Kitwe Branch.

But a year later in 1949, the two “brothers” – Kapwepwe and Kaunda – returned to Chinsali to start farming. Once at home, Mr Kapwepwe continued to be active in the Chinsali African Welfare Association, which was a branch of the Northern Rhodesia African Congress.

In 1950, Mr Kapwepwe quit teaching to pursue journalism and shoe technology in India under a four-year scholarship only to find the ANC orphaned on his return on January 6, 1955, with Dr Kaunda and Mr Nkumbula in prison for allegedly being found in possession of what colonialists deemed subversive literature.

Mr Kapwepwe then assumed the leadership of the party, winning himself the tag of “firebrand” for his persuasive oratory skills.

When Mr Nkumbula came out of prison, he relegated Mr Kapwepwe to the presidency of ANC in charge of the Northern Province and later party treasurer.

When Mr Kapwepwe pushed for greater political activism, a break-up ensued in the ANC, giving birth to the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC) in 1958.

It is also believed Mr Kapwepwe was the first to pronounce the name “Zambia” when he suggested that the break-away party be called “Zambia African National Congress” to identify the territory and the party, which name was later adopted for the independent nation.

The party later changed its name from ZANC to UNIP.
In March 1959, Mr Kapwepwe and other UNIP leaders were rounded up and detained in various parts of Northern Rhodesia by colonialists before he was released in December of the same year from a prison in Mongu.

Before leaving the Barotseland, Mr Kapwepwe made sure he organised and established provincial and district branches for UNIP in Mongu to signify the birth of the party in the area.

A year later (1960), Mr Kapwepwe and Dr Kaunda were on their way to London to lay the foundation for Zambia’s independence at the federal review conference. The almost inseparable brothers were then in their 26th year of their friendship.

When the UNIP and ANC formed a coalition government to fight a common enemy in 1962, Mr Kapwepwe assumed the portfolio of minister of African agriculture and later minister of Home Affairs when the UNIP won control of parliament in 1964.

He switched offices to Foreign Affairs in September, barely a month to independence and remained in the office for three years.

It was during his tenure at Foreign Affairs when he scolded the British Government for its failure to halt the unilateral declaration of independence in Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) by one Ian Smith.

His highest portfolio was that of vice-president of the party and so republican vice-president, taking over from Mr Kamanga at some point. But this was as far as Mr Kapwepwe could go in the UNIP government before alleged failure to stick to pre-independence plans forced him to lead a rebellion within UNIP in 1967.

As republican vice-president, Mr Kapwepwe was influential in the nation’s economy, but some of his ideas including the preservation of Zambian culture and the use of Zambian languages in schools were rejected by then Republican president Dr Kaunda.

His political victories brought tribal political dissention within UNIP which left him with no option but to tender his resignation both as party and Republican vice-president on August 25, 1969.

Stunned by the turn of events, Dr Kaunda successfully persuaded his child-hood friend to rescind his decision and Mr Kapwepwe opted to become minister of culture but ended up with an additional responsibility of minister of provincial and local government.

In October 1970, Mr Kapwepwe lost the position of vice-president but retained the culture and local government portfolios when rumours of the UPP on the Copperbelt surfaced and connected him to its leadership. He was replaced by Mainza Chona as Republican vice-president.

In 1971, Dr Kaunda fired Mr Kapwepwe with three other Cabinet ministers he linked to the UPP. The sackings were followed by elections on December 21, 1971 and Mr Kapwepwe, who by then had formed the UPP, won the Mufulira West parliamentary seat but was the only representative of his own party in parliament.

The UPP on February 4, 1972 was banned and for the first time under UNIP, Mr Kapwepwe with 122 members of his party were arrested and detained.

He remained in detention for close to a year and was only released on December 31, 1972. The following day, a one party State was born. It was deemed the second Republic which effectively shut off Mr Kapwepwe from furthering his opposition politics.

The late Mr Kapwepwe was on February 3, 1973, yet again arrested and charged with possession of two guns for which he was tried and handed a two-year suspended sentence.

The hostile political atmosphere forced Mr Kapwepwe to quit the arena and return to his farm in Chinsali where he remained until September 9, 1977 when again those who resented him invited and persuaded him to rejoin UNIP “for the sake of national unity”.

He reluctantly obliged and in1978, he sought to exercise his right as a member of UNIP to run for the republican presidency, but his intentions were effectively shot down by a last-minute change in the party’s constitution, disqualifying him and Mr Nkumbula from challenging Dr Kaunda who by then had been in power for 14 years.

Mr Kapwepwe could not stomach the levels of intolerance in the party under the leadership of his childhood friend and finally went back to Chinsali at the time the Zambian economy had already started to nose-dive.

On January 24, 1980 while he was visiting his daughter Dr Sampa in Kalulushi, Mr Kapwepwe suffered a stroke and died two days later on January 26, 1980.

His body was flown back to Chinsali for burial, but once there his body was removed from the coffin bought by the State and was buried in the traditional way in a reed-mat and wrapped in a blanket. More than 15,000 people are said to have attended Mr Kapwepwe’s burial.

His widow, Mama Salome, still lives on their farm in Chinsali.

“While he was still conscious, he asked for a pen so that he could write something but the stroke had paralysed his right side and he could not write with his left hand.

“In frustration, he tossed away the pen and so whatever he had wanted to tell the world before he died went with him to the grave…”

However, beyond the many barriers that stopped legendary Mr Kapwepwe from giving his best to the nation he fought to liberate lies his literature anthropology in the many books that he wrote – Utunyonga ndimi, Ubuntungwa mu jambojambo, Shalapo cani candala, Africa kuti twabeelela uluse lelo tekuti tulabe and Africa twasebana.

While he was still alive, Mr Kapwepwe deemed it ironical and improper for villagers to donate their goats to the head of State instead of the other way round and when he died, “one prominent leader who was his close associate said “shikulu, bakalamba mwafwa nefyebo mukanwa” (bigman you have died without speaking out your mind).

Mr Kapwepwe was indeed full of economic, political and cultural focus who foresaw Zambia’s inflation and indebtedness.

The 30th commemoration of his death was organised by the Ex-Freedom Fighters League and it would now be held annually on January 26 – the day Mr Kapwepwe died.

Kitwe Town Clerk Ali Simwinga who stood in for Copperbelt Minister Mwansa Mbulakulima said it was not easy for Zambia as a nation to write off Mr Kapwepwe’s life and pledged the support of the council towards the league.

League president, Stanley Sinkamba dispelled assertions that the league was politically motivated and wondered who would be motivating it when all it did was to organise the commemoration of the fellow former freedom fighter, leader and politician who belonged to UPP.

Mr Kapwepwe’s daughter, Chilufya, proposed the setting up of a political museum in Zambia where history about the country and individuals would be stored.

The League’s general secretary Dickson Kaminda, whose father was a freedom fighter and died a sorry death at the hands of the colonialist, said the league would soon reach out to Mansa, Ndola and other provinces and would among other things identify, enlist and recommend freedom fighters to the Government for honours.

This is because some of those who had already been honoured as former freedom fighters were far younger that the deserving individuals.

Mr Kaminda also requested councils through-out the country to honour former freedom fighters by giving them pieces of land where they would be buried, urging them to take a leaf from the South Africans who recently exhumed remains of their nationals who died and were buried in Lusaka.

Dr Kaunda is also said to have pledged to help the league to take off. His involvement in the association would not be misplaced.

May the soul of Mr Kapwepwe rest in peace.

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