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Last Updated: Monday, 26 June 2006, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Kenneth Kaunda: A life in power
Kenneth Kaunda playing guitar
Kenneth Kaunda playing the guitar

BBC News has been to Zambia as part of a special series looking at how Africa is faring one year on after the promises of increased aid made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles.

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first president, talks to Jon Cronin about life in office, his hopes and fears for Africa, and his one-time dancing partner Margaret Thatcher.

"Although my voice is croaky because I'm having a slight cold, I will sing you a song."

With that Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's founding president and the man who played a crucial part in southern Africa's liberation struggle, takes up his guitar and begins to sing.

The former leader lives a quieter life now than when he led Zambia through 27 years of one-party rule.

These days he devotes much of his time to the battle against the spread of Aids, one of the biggest threats facing the region.

But the peace of his compound in a leafy corner of Lusaka - broken only by the sound of an 82-year-old voice in full song - belies a life spent at the centre of African politics.

Much suffering

Kenneth Kaunda came to power in 1964, on the crest of a wave of liberation movements which saw many African countries gain independence from their European colonial masters.

The Queen said to me 'can you see how we are being watched', referring to my dancing partner Margaret Thatcher
Kenneth Kaunda

The son of a Church of Scotland minister and a committed pan-Africanist, he began the task of building a new Zambia, free to determine its own way in international affairs.

Zambia today is a multi-party nation at peace with itself, but the country is also one of the poorest in the world where almost 80% of the population live below the poverty line.

"We've had our ups and downs, and there is a lot of suffering, I must say," reflects Mr Kaunda.

Zambia is one of a number of "highly indebted poor countries" to have been granted billions of dollars in debt relief, following the historic G8 summit at Gleneagles in Scotland last year.

"Whatever aid comes, in whatever shape or form, must be used properly," he warns. "Instead of spending it on conferences, spend that money on the ground so that the ordinary fellow can benefit."

Freedom struggle

Margaret Thatcher and Kenneth Kaunda dancing
Then, Mr Kaunda with Margaret Thatcher in 1979...

Mr Kaunda readily admits that the country he led for so long paid a high price for its backing of liberation movements elsewhere, particularly in South Africa and what was to become Zimbabwe.

"We used to be bombed here," he says. "There was a price in human life and in terms of the economy. We would build a bridge and they would bomb it."

Although a supporter of Zambia's multi-party system of government now, he defends the one-party state he originally set up.

"It would have been disastrous for Zambia if we had gone multi-party because these parties would have been used by those opposed to Zambia's participation in the freedom struggle," he says.

Despite his late conversion to multi-party democracy, political freedom in southern Africa has largely followed the route set in Mr Kaunda's time, and Nelson Mandela often refers to the debt post-apartheid South Africa owes Zambia.

The two former presidents remain good friends today.

"Each time I go to South Africa, I call him," says Mr Kaunda. "It's interesting, 27 years he was in prison and for 27 years I was president here."

Dancing partner

Kenneth Kaunda today
...and now, a still politically active Mr Kaunda in his Lusaka compound.

Mr Kaunda's near three decades in office saw him cross paths with many world leaders.

He rates US Presidents John F Kennedy and Jimmy Carter as among the most impressive men he met, and retains "great love and respect" for Britain's Queen.

But his meetings during the 1980s with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw the two clash over South Africa.

An early attempt to foster warmer relations with Mrs Thatcher famously brought the two together on the dance floor at a Commonwealth conference in Lusaka.

"After that, she became my dancing partner," he says.

Still, the uneasy relationship remained and Mr Kaunda recalls a later gathering of heads of state in London, in which he found himself standing next to the Queen.

"The Queen said to me 'can you see how we are being watched', referring to my dancing partner Margaret Thatcher."

'Government of assassins'

Perhaps not surprisingly considering his own lengthy grip on power, Mr Kaunda has had a troubled relationship with subsequent Zambian governments.

Lusaka township
The majority of Zambians still live below the poverty line

He was temporarily jailed by his immediate successor, Frederick Chiluba, following a night-time arrest in Lusaka.

"You don't treat presidents like that," he retorts.

More painfully, Mr Kaunda maintains that agents of Mr Chiluba's government were responsible for the death of this son.

"I would say, with due respect, that it was a government of assassins," he says with controlled anger. "There is no doubt in my mind that the government of the day was responsible for the assassination of my son."

Defending Mugabe

His relationship with Zambia's current President Levy Mwanawasa is less fraught. "The new president has been good to me," he says.

But he has little time for those critics in the West of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's policy of land reform, which has seen white farmers driven from the country, resulting in economic meltdown in Zimbabwe.

"I've been saying it all along, please do not demonise Robert Mugabe. I'm not saying the methods he's using are correct, but he was put under great pressure."

The burning issue of land rights for southern Africa's millions of poor and landless blacks remains a major challenge facing the region, he warns.

"I fear that what's taken place in Zimbabwe - if it gets repeated in South Africa - will plunge the whole region into trouble."

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