APART from naming an international airport after him in Livingstone, his is an indelible name in Zambia’s annals of history and the liberation struggle. Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula was one of the trail-blazers in the fight for independence as the wind for self-rule swept across Africa, including Zambia.
Born on January 15, 1916 in Maala village in Namwala district in Southern Province, Mr Nkumbula was a nationalist leader involved in the movement for the independence of Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was known until the end of British rule in 1964. He was the youngest of his parents’ three children and the only son.
Mr Nkumbula received his early formal education at Methodist mission schools and in 1934 completed Standard VI at Kafue Training Institute and taught in Namwala for several years.
In 1938, Mr Nkumbula joined the Northern Rhodesian government’s teaching service and later worked in Kitwe and Mufulira on the Copperbelt Province.
During World War II, he became involved in African nationalist politics, like many other educated Africans at that time. Mr Nkumbula was secretary of the Mufulira Welfare Association and co-founded the Kitwe African Society.
In 1946, Mr Nkumbula went to Makerere University College in Uganda from Chalimbana Teacher Training School in Chongwe with the support of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, a pro-black British settler politician.
From Makerere, Mr Nkumbula went on to study and received a diploma from the Institute of Education, University of London.
In London, Mr Nkumbula had the opportunity to meet other African nationalists who were galvanised after attending the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester, England.
In 1949, he worked with Nyasaland’s (Malawi) late President Hastings Kamuzu Banda in drafting a document that expressed African opposition to the proposed white-dominated Central African Federation.
This collaboration prepared the two men for their subsequent struggles with the colonialists in their home countries.
After pursuing his diploma, Mr Nkumbula enrolled to study economics at the London School of Economics and returned to Northern Rhodesia in 1950.
Described as a militant, articulate and uncompromising opponent of the Federation, Mr Nkumbula was elected president of the Northern Rhodesian African Congress in 1951.
The party was soon renamed African National Congress (ANC) and in 1953, Kenneth Kaunda (first republican President) became secretary general of the ANC.
Dr Kaunda later separated from ANC and formed the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC) in October 1958.
ZANC was, however, banned in March 1959 and in June, Dr Kaunda was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.
While Dr Kaunda was still in prison, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) was formed late in 1959.
After being released from prison, Dr Kaunda took over the presidency of UNIP, which became better organised and more militant than ANC. Due to this, UNIP rapidly took the leading position in the struggle for independence, eclipsing the ANC.
During independence constitutional talks in London in 1960-1961, Mr Nkumbula is said to have played a secondary role.
He suffered a further setback when he disappeared from the political scene for nine months (April 1961-January 1962), while serving a prison sentence for causing death by dangerous driving.
He later made an electoral pact with the white-dominated United Federal Party (UFP), but eventually Mr Nkumbula chose to form a coalition with UNIP and was given the post of Minister of African Education.
The UNIP/ANC alliance lasted until the pre-independence elections of January 1964, when UNIP won 55 seats against the ANC’s 10 seats and Mr Nkumbula became leader of the opposition.
Based on Robinson Nabulyato’s memoir, earlier in 1952, the congress collected £3,000 from Southern Province and £800 from Northern Province to send a delegation to England to try and persuade the British government not to impose the Federation.
The delegation included Mr Nabulyato, General Secretary of the NRAC, Lawrence Katilungu, leader of the trade unions, Paramount Chief Chitimukulu, Senior Chief Musokotwane and Mr Nkumbula and Dr Hastings 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 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 was in the case of South Africa.
The British betrayal of Africans led logically to an agenda of full independence.
As no party commanded sufficient seats to form 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.
On the day to coincide with the official opening of the Harry Mwaanga Nkumbulu International Airport, Mr Nkumbula’s daughter Ompie wrote: “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 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?” she wrote in part.
She indicates that most hands in the crowded hall went up in answer to those questions, whereupon Mr Nkumbula abruptly departed with Dr Kaunda for Government House to inform the Governor about their decision to form the first black government.
According to Ompie, Mr Nkumbula 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,” she wrote.
Dr Kaunda later declared Zambia a one-party state and Mr Nkumbula later signed a document called the Choma Declaration on June 27, 1973 and announced that he was joining UNIP.
The ANC ceased to exist after the dissolution of parliament in October 1973.
Mr Nkumbula’s last prominent political action was an attempt, together with former Vice-President Simon Kapwepwe, to stand against Dr Kaunda for Zambia’s one-party presidential nomination in 1978, but were outdone by Dr Kaunda, who secured the nomination.
“He (Mr Nkumbula) 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,” says Ompie, who is former Namwala Member of Parliament.
She acknowledges that: “When (former) President Michael Chilufya Sata renamed Livingstone International Airport as Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, 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 55 years of independence.”
Mr Nkumbula died on October 8, 1983, aged 67.
Who was Nkumbula?