The former British colony of Northern Rhodesia, home to the world-famous Victoria Falls, became the ninth African state to gain full independence on October 25th, 1964.
The newly-renamed Republic of Zambia was led by 40-year-old President Kenneth Kaunda, a well-educated, moderate and reasonable man opposed to violence. He was head of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) which had spearheaded the push for independence.
Unlike some former African colonies, the fight for independence had been relatively bloodless. Two-stage elections had been held in late 1962, resulting in an African majority on Northern Rhodesia’s legislative council. It then passed a series of resolutions moving towards full independence and self-governance under a new constitution.
In December 1963 Dr Kaunda – the son of a Church of Scotland missionary – was elected Prime Minister of Northern Rhodesia and began overseeing the peaceful transition to a fully independent Republic of Zambia. The final documents were signed on October 24th, 1964, with the new nation beginning its first day on the 25th.
Thousands of people gathered at the renamed Independence Stadium in the nation’s capital, Lusaka, for a ceremony marking the official changeover. As the clock struck midnight the Union Jack was lowered and replaced with the red, black, green and orange colours of the new flag of Zambia. Chants of “Kwatcha”, meaning ‘new dawn’, rang through the stadium as a huge copper torch was lit on a hill overlooking the capital city.
President Kaunda was presented with the official documents – the ‘Instruments of Independence’ – by the Queen’s representative Princess Mary, the Princess Royal, performing one of her last official engagements prior to her death from a heart attack just five months later. She also read a personal message from the Queen welcoming Zambia as the newest member of the Commonwealth.
Later that day, President Kaunda gave his first news conference, speaking of “building a nation founded on respect for people of all races, all colours and all religions”. He also reassured the 70,000-plus Europeans who still lived and worked in Zambia that they had a place in the new nation and a role to play in its foundation. Ten of the 73 seats in Zambia’s new parliament were held by Europeans and President Kaunda promised to support their preservation for at least the next four years.
One of President Kaunda’s first acts was to order the release of around 200 ‘freedom fighters’ who had been jailed for sedition by the former colonial administration. He also supported campaigns for independence in other African countries run as colonies by various European powers, but stressed he wanted their transition to be peaceful and democratic.
Zambia’s economy was founded on its mineral wealth and copper mining industry, which was partially nationalised under the new government so that its income was not siphoned overseas. However, it made the country vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of copper and the new nation’s first few years brought economic challenges.
President Kaunda proved a capable and mostly popular leader, remaining in power for almost three decades, although for much of that time Zambia was a one-party state. He was finally defeated in elections in 1991 and retired from politics six years later, after repeatedly clashing with the new government over its policies. He then became involved in various charitable organisations and played a key role in fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa through better health education. Now aged 93, he continues to live quietly in the nation he was instrumental in founding.