Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula and the struggle for Zambia’s Independence

Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula is a man whose name many Zambians will recognise, but as much as I recognise his name, I mainly remember him being briefly mentioned as a freedom fighter, sometime in Primary school. His name, was attached to a small paragraph in a social studies class and he now seems like the classic example of how “history favours the one who writes it”. Despite the United National Independence Party (UNIP) treating the ANC like something of no significance except tribal allegiance, and despite their attempts at discredit Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula, the truth was not totally quenched. It is important to note that Mr Nkumbula was by no means a flawless man, something he himself is said to have admitted, yet I believe, that it is despite these flaws that he should be celebrated; after all, we are all on a journey, with flaws that we wouldn’t admit to.

Mr Nkumbula was born in 1916, (sometime at the beginning of the year, most likely in March, but no exact birth date exists on record),  to parents in a village called Maala in the Namwala district, who were members of the Ila, a tribe that is part of the Bantu Botatwe (three peoples), the other two tribes being the Tonga and Lenje. These three are said to have been the first of Zambia’s seventy-three tribes.

Mr Nkumbula was a student of the Methodist mission and this upbringing may have had a significant effect on his views on racial relations and the equality of all men. The Methodist missionaries are said to have viewed the Ila people, as well as other Indigenous Africans as human; with one Reverend Edwin Smith writing about how he endeavoured to see things through their eyes and referred to them as his people. It is interesting to note that Rev. Smith had great influence on Mr Nkumbula’s first teacher, Rev John W. Price who believed that it was never okay to assume a white man was right all the time, missionary or not . This man also opposed, Northern Rhodesia’s (now Zambia) informal colour bar and put people’s abilities and character above their race.

Mr Nkumbula was under Rev. Price untill he completed Standard II in which time he worked for Dr HS Gerrad. He went to the Kafue Missionary Mission, which was probably the most advanced missionary education institution to be enjoyed by the natives of Northern Rhodesia (NR) and it was there that he was to become one of the first Natives of NR to pass his standard IV exams in 1934, after which he taught at Kasenga mission in his home town for a year, and like Smith collected information about the norms and practices of the Ila–studies that together with his Methodist background, would later influence his ideals in politics. He was transferred to Kafue, where he taught till 1937 before being transferred to Kanchindu in the Gwembe Valley. Things did not go as well for him there as he suffered health problems and differed with his overseers, the clash most likely starting when he requested a salary increase. Mr Nkumbula showed a great awareness of his rights, but he ended up being dismissed for indiscreet conduct.

The dismissal did not last however, and Mr Nkumbula was sent to Mufulira on a probationary appointment in 1940; this would prove to be the beginning of his involvement in politics. throughout the 1940s, Mr Nkumbula lobbied against “settler nationalism” and the Central African Federation, on the basis that he believed it would prove catastrophic for the indigenous people of Zambia as Southern Rhodesia had a native policy that sought dominion over the natives. He was the founding secretary of the African Teacher’s Association of the Copperbelt which was aimed at increasing the level of cooperation between the African Teachers, Missionaries and the department of African education; they also sought to foster unity among the teachers and look into the problems that came with being African and work with any organisation that was interested in creating better lives for Africans. As early as the 1940s, Mr Nkumbula recognised the need for educating young girls and understood that their education would improve outcomes for all Zambians as they had great influence in the formative years of children.

In 1943, Mr Nkumbula moved to Kitwe where he became Secretary of the Kitwe African Society, representing them on the first Copperbelt Regional Council, which later became the African Provincial Council. At this time, he was making the authorities anxious due to his more active role, alongside Dauti Yamba, in challenging the unofficial colour bar, speaking against federation and defending the right to form trade unions. In 1944, the District Commissioner of Kitwe expressed his misgivings about Mr Nkumbula in a confidential report, suggesting ways of stopping him from spreading his views among the teachers and pupils, but concluding his suggestions to make him a government employee in order to control him would probably make Mr Nkumbula harder to deal with. Mr Nkumbula resigned and went to study in Uganda that same year and at the time was convinced the greatest hurdle for the African was the lack of leadership and unity.

In 1946, the Foundation of African Societies in Northern Rhodesia was formed in Mr Nkumbula’s absence. While in Uganda, he experienced life without the colour bar, with people interacting across cultures and races, before going to London where he was drawn into political activities even further, and developed a socialist view of politics, to the dismay of the Northern Rhodesian authorities, who became very anxious when in 1949, he wrote a letter to a Southern Rhodesian newspaper called the African weekly, opposing federation. When he failed his exams, unlike other students who were given a second chance at the exams, his scholarship was withdrawn and he had to go back to Northern Rhodesia.

While the authorities probably thought that Mr Nkumbula being sent home would reign him in, he became even more involved in politics. He rose to prominence between 1951 and ’53 after being elected to the Northern Rhodesian African Congress, and aligned himself with the people of the Southern Province, who funded most of the ANCs projects, more out of need of funding than tribal affiliations. In opposing the federation, they launched the lands rights case, which they lost, and while it seems like a defeat, may show a man who made calculated moves and understood the rights provided under the law.

He was the first ever politician to bring the chiefs together to fight federation and is hailed for bringing order and organisation as well as better methods of record keeping to the ANC, as well as made membership easier to acquire, leading to an increased membership from the hundreds to probably the thousands in 1952,  It was during this time that the ANC brought in provincial organising secretaries, the first President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda being one of them, stationed in Northern province. All the provincial Secretaries were picked by Mr Nkumbula based on the qualities they possesed and how commited they were to the fight for independence. Ba Kaunda was elected to the executive of the ANC in 1953, and together with Mr Nkumbula, spent two months in prison for the possession of banned printed material, relating to the freedom struggle. Despite once referring to Mr Nkumbula as a National builder and liberator, their friendship soon became strained and eventually, Ba Kaunda and others left the ANC to form the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC).

There are claims made by Ba Kaunda and Sikalumbi that after the stay in prison, Nkumbula became less committed to the cause, however, the ANC leader’s speech upon release and events at the time paint a different picture. Mr Nkumbula left Ba Kaunda in London on a mission to meet up with the Colonial secretary, Ba Kaunda stating that Mr Nkumbula gave no explanation and was in a bad mood, and that his move, left Ba Kaunda unable to speak to Boyd who would only speak to the ANC president. Upon his return, he would not discuss matters with Mr Kapwepwe, who he had left in charge. Later Ba Kaunda would claim that their leader, while on a solo trip to meet Mr Boyd again, preferred to rest in his hotel room rather than meet the Colonial Secretary and instead sent the memorandum intended for the Colonial Secretary via post.

After the stay in prison with Ba Kaunda, Mr Nkumbula stated that they would not give up and were more determined to fight for freedom and encouraged others to keep fighting. Hardly a speech by a Lion that had lost its teeth. It seems more likely that he was willing to pursue diplomacy as a means to independence, something that did not suit the  members of the ZANC, a more militant party than the ANC. Also, considering that his party insisted he go to London, then in his absence allowed a violent protest to take place, his mood when he left Kaunda in the UK and his refusal to confer with Mr Kapwepwe are given a different perspective, especially when you consider that the ANC believed in non-violence. As for no meeting Boyd on his second trip, it could possibly have been a protest. It seems more likely that it was tribalism and destabilising forces within the ANC that led to the split and not Mr Nkumbula’s shortcomings. ZANC later became UNIP, and though Mr Nkumbula was never actively tribal, he never discouraged other members of ANC from using tribalism to discredit UNIP, to a point that they even took on an anti-Nyasaland stance.

Due to the financial problems that plagued the ANC after the ZANC split, Mr Nkumbula turned to Tshombe over the Congolese border for help; an alliance that he broke when, after convincing the United Federation Party (UFP) to endorse his candidates in the 1962 elections, was left in a position to choose between the UFP and UNIP as to whom to form government with. He chose UNIP; leaving the ANC in financial difficulty again as UNIP was anti-Tshombe, and adding the UFP to his list of enemies. What his choice meant however, is that the Central African republic that he had fought so greatly against became history. The UFP worked with Michelo, an ANC member to create the People’s Democratic Congress (PDC). This haemorrhage of members did not help the ANC and added to their administrative and financial problems. Michelo rejoined the ANC but still worked as a destabilising force and after the loss of the 1964 elections that saw Zambia gain independence from British rule, there were more people, including Michelo who left to either join UNIP or form the United Front (UF).

It is clear that Mr Nkumbula was had an extraordinary influence on the fight for independence, rising up and seeking to instil a sense of worth in his fellow Africans. He fought while still respecting the rights of all men and without considering himself above other races. The fight for Independence had ended, the fight for Zambia’s future had started.


Hitchcock, B. (1974). Bwana – go home (1st ed.). London: Hale.

Macola, G. (2010). Liberal nationalism in Central Africa (1st ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mwangilwa, G. (n.d.). Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula (1st ed.).



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