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Ex-freedom fighter Kenneth Kaunda on Africa's new battles

  • Kenneth Kaunda became Zambia's first President after independence in 1964
  • During the country's struggles, Kaunda was jailed twice by the colonial authorities
  • Once in power, he governed for 27 years under one-party rule
  • Twenty years out of politics, Kaunda continues to campaign against the spread of AIDS

Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Watch the shows on Saturdays at 1130 and 1830 GMT and Sundays at 1700 GMT. This week the show profiles Kenneth Kaunda, one of modern Africa's founding father's and Zambia's first President.

(CNN) -- Considered one of modern Africa's founding fathers, Zambia's first President Kenneth Kaunda has spent much of his life fighting some of Africa's toughest battles.

From his struggles against the racism and oppression of colonial rule in the 1950s to the fight against AIDS today, it's been an eventful life for Zambia's former leader.

Kaunda's rise to prominence started in the early 1950s, a time of growing political unrest in the region.

Independence movements across Africa were gaining momentum and activists, becoming ever more defiant, were demanding the end of colonialism and the right to self government.

In Northern Rhodesia -- soon to become Zambia -- Kaunda was in the midst of the struggles, fighting against a repressive and racist regime, he explained to CNN.

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"We were going to defy unjust laws, conditions of slavery more or less...There was segregation of the worst form."

He continued: "Schools for whites, schools for blacks, hospitals for whites, few hospitals for blacks. And so it went on. Everywhere there was racial discrimination."

But his fight for independence was not without consequence and in 1959 Kaunda was arrested and jailed for ten months.

For Kaunda, prison was an inevitable part of the fight for freedom.

"I think I succeeded in the end but it meant going into prison defying unjust laws, being arrested by the police, beaten up, thrown into prison," he said.

"You come out and you still continue and we did this and in the end thank God we succeeded."

After his release in January 1960 Kaunda became leader of the newly formed United National Independence Party (UNIP) and in 1964 after elections and much political wrangling, Zambia was finally granted independence from the British with Kaunda as its president.

It was a presidency which was to last 27 years, but under one party rule. A decision highly criticized, with many accusing Kaunda of presiding over a dictatorship.

But Kaunda has remained defiant about his decision to form a one-party state, telling CNN: "My colleagues and I decided we're going to go into one party. The reason for that, there was no way, no way at all in which we could have fought and defeated colonialism all around us, with so many parties in Zambia at that time. No way at all.

Schools for whites, schools for blacks, hospitals for whites, few hospitals for blacks. Everywhere there was racial discrimination.
--Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first President

He continued: "No, I have never been a dictator. It was a bargain with the people. But even then I knew it was not the best thing to do. But in that situation it was the only way out."

In 1990 Kaunda finally legalized opposition parties setting the stage for free, multi-party elections, which took place in 1991. The elections saw the end of Kaunda's leadership with Frederick Chiluba from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy coming to power.

Now, after 20 years away from the political spotlight, Kaunda is still campaigning. His major battle today is the fight against HIV/AIDS, a disease running rampant throughout his country, affecting one in eight Zambians.

It's a cause close to the former leader's heart and one which has affected him personally.

"My own child, one of them, died of Aids. A brilliant boy," Kaunda told CNN.

"He died of AIDS but that's not the reason why I am fighting AIDS. I fight AIDS because it's a killer disease, destroys the human race in all fields."

It's this constant will to fight that leaves Kaunda positive about the future of his country and Africa. This despite the many challenges ahead.

"I'm very hopeful that things will come right," he said to CNN.

"Because you see there was a time when a leader went wrong and they became an oppressor...but today things have begun to change.

"The struggle, the condemnation is quite often within the continent of Africa. It's a good beginning towards a realization of what, democracy is right in this world, east, west, north, south. So I'm confident that we have begun to grow."

Susannah Palk contributed to this report