LUSAKA, June 17 (Reuters) – Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president who led his country for 27 years and championed Africa’s struggles against apartheid and HIV/AIDS, has died at the age of 97.

“KK”, as he was popularly known, was being treated for pneumonia at the Maina Soko Medical Centre, a military hospital in Lusaka. read more

“On behalf of the entire nation and on my own behalf, I pray that the entire Kaunda family is comforted as we mourn our first president and true African icon,” President Edgar Lungu said in a message on his Facebook page.

Authorities declared 21 days of mourning for the liberation hero who ruled from 1964, after the southern African nation won its independence from Britain, until 1991.

Although Zambia’s copper-based economy fared badly under his long stewardship, Kaunda will be remembered more for his role as an anti-colonial fighter who stood up to white minority-ruled South Africa.

He shared a loss experienced by countless families in Africa when his son Masuzyo died of AIDS in 1986, and he began a personal crusade against the disease.

“This is the biggest challenge for Africa. We must fight AIDS and we must do so now,” he told Reuters in 2002.

“We fought colonialism. We must now use the same zeal to fight AIDS, which threatens to wipe out Africa.”

As leader of the first country in the region to break with its European colonisers, Kaunda worked hard to drag other former colonies along in Zambia’s wake towards majority rule.

In 1991, he was forced to hold the first multi-party elections for 23 years, which he lost to long-time foe, trade unionist Frederick Chiluba.

Though he was widely admired as a warm and emotional man, the voters judged he had overstayed his welcome in office and mismanaged the economy.

THE UNEXPECTED ONE

Kenneth David Kaunda was born on April 28, 1924, the youngest of eight children of a Church of Scotland minister at Lubwa mission in the remote north of the country.

Known also by his African name of “Buchizya” – the unexpected one – he did menial jobs to earn school fees after his father’s death. He worked as a teacher and a mine welfare officer and entered politics in 1949 as a founder member of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress.

In his early days of anti-colonial agitation, he cycled from village to village preaching majority rule.

A 1963 landslide victory for UNIP, which had broken away from the ANC five years earlier, led to Kaunda becoming prime minister of Northern Rhodesia. At independence in 1964, he became president of the new Zambia.

By the time he lost power, Kaunda’s popularity had slumped and hardship gripped most of his 11 million people as the price of copper, the country’s main export, plummeted.

  Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda (C) walks with children in Ganze village .  REUTERS/Joseph Okanga/File Photo
Former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda speaks during the funeral ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu December 15, 2013.   REUTERS/Odd Andersen/Pool/File Photo
Zambia's former president Kenneth Kaunda attends the 40th anniversary of independence in Lusaka October 24, 2004, after the government publicly apologized for arresting and jailing him on trumped-up charges in 1997. Known as Northern Rhodesia under British rule, Zambia won independence from Britain following successful negotiations with freedom fighters led by Kenneth Kaunda, the founding president. REUTERS/Salim Henry  RSS/GB/File Photo

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