JOHANNESBURG - The man known as Zambia's founding father has died at the age of 97. Kenneth Kaunda was one of the last of a dying generation of liberation leaders who saw their countries through a triumphant and turbulent period in African history.
Kaunda rose to power during Africa's heady post-independence period, when dozens of former European colonies gained their freedom. He served as the first president of the southern African nation of Zambia, after it gained independence from Britain in 1964. He held the post until 1991.
Zambia's government said Kaunda died Thursday afternoon in a hospital in the capital, Lusaka. His staff said he had been admitted days earlier with pneumonia.
In a statement, Zambian President Edgar Lungu declared 21 days of national mourning in honor of the man he described as the "beloved founding father."
But his influence goes far beyond the borders of Zambia, says Ghana-based lawyer Sarfo Abebrese, who heads the Coalition of Supporters Unions of Africa.
"Kenneth Kaunda continued with the fight against colonialism and played a leading role in disciplining the likes of Nelson Mandela, the likes of Robert Mugabe, the likes of Sam Nujoma and others to bring independence to the southern African nations, just as Kwame Nkrumah did in West Africa," he told VOA. "It is safe to say that just as Kwame Nkrumah was in West Africa, so was Kenneth Kaunda in southern Africa. His legacy lasts not a lifetime, but it lasts forever."
A passion for equality was central to Kaunda's vision of a modern Zambia, a nation with dozens of languages and ethnicities, says Dr. Emmanuel Matambo, a professor at the University of Johannesburg.
"He always promoted this motto of Zambia being 'One Zambia, one nation,'" he told VOA. "Because he managed to forge a nation out of a group of very disparate ethnicities, dialects. And that has been quite an achievement on the African continent, not only in Zambia."
Kaunda was born in 1924, the youngest of eight children of missionary teachers from neighboring Malawi. Like fellow post-independence leaders Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Kaunda began his career as a teacher before shifting to politics.
Some say he set up his small country for success; for others, he leaves a mixed legacy. And, says Matambo, that may be because of the immense pressure put on Africa by global and regional events - from as far away as the Soviet Union to as close as South Africa.
In the battle against the unjust apartheid system, says pan-African activist Daniel Mwambonu, he also was a leading light.
"By his contribution in raising awareness on what was happening in South Africa," he told VOA, "he made the world understand the harsh realities of apartheid in South Africa and was a voice for South Africans at the United Nations. He made the U.N. understand the harsh realities of apartheid in South Africa."
Kaunda remained active after his retirement, campaigning with HIV/AIDS organizations and as an elder statesman in his country and the region. In recent years, he made fewer public appearances, attending the funerals of compatriots like Mugabe and South African icon Nelson Mandela, fellow leaders of modern Africa.