In 1951 Kaunda entered public life through a welfare association affiliated with the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress (NRANC), a nationalist organization. In 1953 he was elected general secretary of NRANC. Faced with the possible merger of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) under white leadership, he joined other African nationalists in organizing mass demonstrations. In 1953 and again in 1956, he was jailed, albeit briefly, by colonial authorities.
In 1958 Kaunda broke with the NRANC to form the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC). In 1959 ZANC was banned, and Kaunda was imprisoned for nine months. He continued his political activities and in January 1964 was elected prime minister following sweeping political reforms and a new constitution that would lead the country to independence. On 24 October 1964, Zambia became independent, with Kaunda as its first president.
A socialist, Kaunda helped unify his country, but his economic policies eventually visited considerable hardship on his people. He was, however, a significant force in southern Africa regional politics and played a major role in efforts to bring an end to the war in neighboring Rhodesia.
Sadly, Kaunda turned toward political repression to retain power. When violence followed the 1968 elections, he banned all political parties except his own, the United National Independence Party (UNIP). In spite of his political orientation, his relations with communist nations were limited mainly to contact with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which helped build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway allowing landlocked Zambia to increase exports of its chief commodity, copper.
By the late 1980s, a faltering economy and calls for pluralistic elections had begun to weaken the Kaunda regime, which had grown corrupt and arrogant. In 1991 multiparty elections were held, forcing Kaunda from office on 2 November 1991.
Hall, Richard. The High Price of Principles: Kaunda and the White South. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1969.; Macpherson, Fergus. Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia: The Times and the Man. London: Oxford University Press, 1974.