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Freedom fighter Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula bio from daughter’s narrative

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Born on January 15, 1916 in Maala village, Namwala, Southern Province, like most emerging African leaders, he came of age under missionary tutelage, in his case, the Methodist Missionary Society which monopolised evangelical and educational activities in Namwala.

He started teaching at Kafue Mission School, went on to Kanchindu in the late 1930s and finally moved to the Copperbelt where he took up the position of headmaster of Mufulira and later Wusakile African schools. While on the Copperbelt he interacted with other Africans who were concerned about, and objected to, the way Africans were being treated by the colonial administration. Africans were forming welfare societies forerunners of the African nationalist movement.

By 1942/43, my father was secretary general of the African Teachers Association of the Copperbelt and also secretary of the Kitwe African Society, of which the chairman was Dauti Yamba. At that time, he wrote a progressive paper for teachers in Mufulira on the importance of educating girls, who would, in turn influence the education of children in the home.

From the Copperbelt, he proceeded to Chalimbana Teacher Training College from where, in 1946, at the age of 30, he embarked on a period of further studies at Makerere University in Uganda. He had written a paper on the life and Customs of the Bail, which so impressed Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, then a member of the Northern Rhodesia Legislative Council appointed to represent Africans, that he decided to support my father’s further education.

In that paper, incidentally, he writes about the traditional role of women in a way that gender experts even today would find progressive, another example that several commentators have described as being ahead of his time. In 1947, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the London University Institute of Education, but in 1948 he transferred to the London School of Economics.

Kenneth Kaunda (left) with Nkumbula

While in London, he was drawn into pan-Africanist circles which included Kwame Nkrumah (later president of Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (later President of Kenya), Charles Njonjo (later Attorney General of Kenya) Seretse Khama (later president of Botswana) and Hastings Banda, later president of Malawi with whom he co-authored Federation in Central Africa in 1949. This document, which was presented as a memorandum to the Colonial Office, was a powerfully-written point-by-point rebuttal of the arguments for the looming Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, as well as the first comprehensive statement of political objectives ever made by Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia African leaders.

When he returned to Northern Rhodesia in 1950, he became involved in organising the Northern Rhodesia African Congress, which had been formed in 1948 under the leadership of Mr Godwin Mbikusita (later the Litunga of Barotseland), with Mr Robinson Nabulyato as secretary general. It was a time when the white settlers had gained more confidence and influence and were campaigning aggressively to create a federation of the two Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland, (Malawi) which would be run from Salisbury (Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) by and in the interests of the white settlers.

Since he needed funds for himself, and to start organising politically, he ventured into the business of bringing cowrie shells (Impande) from Mozambique and selling them for cattle, which he in turn sold for cash. This venture was both ingenious and lucrative. Some commentators have accused him of exploiting gullible rural dwellers, but I see no difference between what he did and what happens when someone buys a diamond to indulge a taste for fashion.

On July 21 and 22 1951, the Northern Rhodesia African Congress met to decide what to do with the federal proposals. The conference, which took place in Lusaka Kabwata Welfare Hall, was stormy. With fiery oratory, my father delivered a devastating and eloquent denunciation of the dangers of federation to the political aspirations of the Africans, following which he was elected president of the Congress.

To demonstrate Africans total rejection of the federation, my father burnt the white paper proposing the federation and circulated the resolution passed at the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England in 1945 against colonialism. The language of that resolution was new to Northern Rhodesia, including such statements as: All colonies must be free from foreign imperialist control whether political or economic. The peoples of the colonies must have the right to elect their own governments without restriction from foreign powers.

The NRAC, which became the African National Congress (ANC) by 1953, organised a campaign against the colour bar in shops and butcheries that sold their goods through windows and hatches. The campaign resulted in them losing business. The notices which were common at the entrances of most European restaurants and bars which read, Africans and dogs not allowed, were therefore removed, though the colour bar remained in place. For the 90 percent of Zambians who have grown up since independence, it must be hard to imagine that such a time existed in this country.

With a Tory government in Britain, known for its pro-imperial stance and potential willingness to impose the federation against the wishes of the African people, the Congress set in motion a number of actions to thwart the imposition of the Federation.

Based on Mr Nabulyato memoir, in early 1952, the Congress collected £3000 from the Southern Province and £ 800 from the Northern Province to send a delegation to England to try to persuade the British government not to impose the federation. This powerful delegation included Mr Robinson Nabulyato, General Secretary of the NRAC, Mr Lawrence Katilungu, leader of the trade unions, their royal highnesses Paramount Chief Chitimukulu, Senior Chief Musokotwane and my father from Northern Rhodesia and Dr Hastings (later Kamuzu) Banda from Nyasaland. Together with the trade unions they called for a National Day of Prayer, and a work stoppage to last two days beginning on April 1 1953.

However, these actions failed to stem the tide, and so the Federation came into being in 1953 and lasted until its dissolution in December 1963. Africans felt betrayed by the British, who had succumbed to European settler interests, whose aim may well have been to move to dominion status and an apartheid regime as in South Africa. The British betrayal of Africans led logically to an agenda of full independence.

Thus, once the Federation was imposed, the ANC continued organising throughout the country and challenging the authority of the new Federal Government and, increasingly, that of the British colonial government itself. In 1955, the ANC office at Mapoloto in Chilenje and our house were searched. I remember that search. Mr Kenneth Kaunda, then the ANC secretary general and my father were accused of being subversives. They were arrested and taken to court. It was my first time to go to court with my late sister Malaoe: we were so young! They were both imprisoned at Chimbokaila Remand Prison for, I believe, two months.

By 1957, talks of a new constitution for Northern Rhodesia were initiated. The ANC sent a detailed memorandum to the Governor, Sir Arthur Benson, outlining the feelings of Africans on the most important aspects of any new constitution. It proposed, among other things, universal adult suffrage one man one vote with no reserved seats for the white and other minorities. However, in September 1958, when the notorious Benson Constitution was presented, all their proposals were rejected. Instead, the Governor proposed two voter rolls: one for Europeans and one for Africans who had reached certain education and property qualifications, which were far beyond the reach of ordinary Africans.

My father, not withstanding his frustration and disappointment with the Governor proposals, agreed to give the Constitution a trial. He believed that it represented modest progress and offered an entry point for Africans into the legislature. This led, I believe, to the split in the ANC in October 1958 with those who favoured a more militant and confrontational approach. Mr. Kaunda, Mr Simon Kapwepwe, Mr Munukayambwa Sipalo, Mr Reuben Kamanga and others left the ANC and formed the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC), which was later banned in 1959 and its leaders sent into detention.
Following their release from prison in 1960, they joined the United National Independence Party (UNIP) which at the time was led by Mr Mainza Chona, who then surrendered the leadership to Mr Kaunda.

During 1961, riots broke out on the Copperbelt and violent disturbances took place, especially in Northern Province, following the adoption by UNIP of its a Five Point Master PlanThis growth in militancy and the threat of a breakdown in law and order led the British Government to introduce another constitution in 1962, termed the 15-15-15 Constitution, because it provided for three separate voter rolls, (European, Mixed and African) each electing 15 seats. The United Federal Party (UFP) won 16 seats, UNIP 14 seats and ANC 7. Thus no single party commanded sufficient seats to form a government.

Negotiations ensued between UNIP and ANC, and between UFP and ANC, with both of the two larger parties asking the ANC to form a coalition.
After intense bargaining, my father, supported by Mr Edward Mungoni Liso and the leadership of the ANC agreed to form a government with UNIP. My father is considered to have handled this crucial period with political agility. He convened a special meeting of the ANC National Assembly in Lusaka and, accompanied by Mr Kenneth Kaunda, marched dramatically into the meeting and posed three questions in rapid succession: How many of you favour an African government? How many want an African government now? How many are behind me? Most hands in that crowded hall went up in answer to those questions, whereupon my father abruptly departed with Mr Kenneth Kaunda for Government House to inform the Governor about their decision to form the first black government. He drove a hard bargain: the six ministerial posts were split equally between UNIP and ANC. It was also clear that the writing was now on the wall for the despised Federation, which was finally dissolved in December 1963 by the Northern Rhodesia Legislative Council.

One man one vote finally came in through another new constitution in September 1963. In the General Election of January 20 1964, which ushered in independence, the ANC lost to UNIP, which won by 55 seats to the ANC 10. Mr Kenneth Kaunda became Prime Minister and then President of Zambia on October 24 1964, while my father became leader of the opposition.

By 1968, UNIP had lost members to the United Party (UP) of Mr Nalumino Mundia who eventually merged with the ANC. This, accompanied by economic issues caused by the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by Southern Rhodesia in 1965, led UNIP to start talking about a one-party state.

My father strongly opposed the one-party state and, together with Mr Nalumino Mundia, challenged its introduction in court. They lost. He also strongly debated against the one-party state in Parliament in December 1972. However, since peace and unity were of the utmost importance to my father, he eventually went along with UNIP and agreed on a one-party state in Choma on 13th December 1972. Zambia had a new constitution which ushered in the one-party state in 1973, which lasted almost 20 years.

My father took no government or party position in UNIP and concentrated instead on developing his farm. By 1975, two years after the one-party state, he acquired an emerald licence, having already had an amethyst licence before. This was at a time when independent mining by Zambians was unheard-of, opening the way for Zambians to go into gemstone and other small mining ventures.

In 1978 he and Mr Kapwepwe tried to oppose President Kaunda for the leadership of UNIP but were effectively prevented from standing by a sudden change in UNIP.

What was his legacy?

He was a nationalist through and through. From the transformation of NRAC to the ANC in 1953 through the split in 1958, the formation of the coalition government in 1962 without which independence would not have happened when it did, to his reluctant acceptance of the one-party state in 1972, it was the empowerment of the African people in an independent, sovereign, democratic state that drove him. He fought for unity, peace, democracy, independence and reconciliation, even when these forced him to accept solutions he did not like. Just as he compromised with the hated Benson constitution in 1958, he compromised with UNIP in 1962 to pave the way for independence, and he compromised again in 1972.

He hated dictatorship, injustice, arbitrary state power and the one-party state. The end of one-party dictatorship in 1991 and the establishment of a multi-party democracy, whatever challenges it may face, was a vindication of his position.

He was an economic liberal, preferring a mixed market economic system to the state-driven economy that dominated economic policy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s not just in Zambia, but throughout the continent. As his business ventures show, he was a capable entrepreneur. Zambia economic collapse under the one-party state and the establishment of a market system after 1991 justify his principles and viewpoint. He was a social liberal, displaying in his early writings an understanding of gender issues that was years ahead of his time; and explaining in part why he was such a great father!

When President Michael Chilufya Sata renamed Livingstone International Airport as Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula Airport, it was a full tribute and final recognition of the crucial role my father played in entrenching the peace, progress and national unity this country has enjoyed during the past 50 years of independence.

The author is former MP for Namwala and former member of the Pan-African Parliament. Her article then coincided with the official opening of the Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport today.

The author Ompie Nkumbula acknowledges with gratitude the assistance of Mr Sikota Wina in the writing of this article, which also draws on Giacomo Macola; Liberal Nationalism in Central Africa, A Biography of Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, Palgrave Macmillan 2010.


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