Meet Simon Zukas: the man who fought for Zambian statehood

Natasha Blair profiles the man from a Lithuanian Jewish family who helped the fight for independence from Britain


In the years before Zambia achieved statehood in 1964, one of the few white men to stand up against the culture of white supremacy was a Jew — Simon Zukas.

Mr Zukas and his family came  from pre-war Lithuania to what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia because it did not employ quotas limiting Jewish settlers — unlike South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe.

He later joined the territory’s struggle for independence and today remains a standard-bearer for its small Jewish community as chairman of the Council for Zambian Jewry, an umbrella organisation.

“The threat of Hitler was around when we moved from Lithuania but we didn’t foresee what was going to happen,” he once told the Zambian website Extraordinary.

“We left for economic reasons but we were lucky. Only a few years later it would have been very difficult because of the war.”

Mr Zukas’s schooling took him to the University of Cape Town, where he studied civil engineering. His time there coincided with the inauguration of apartheid, which thrust him into radical student politics and inspired him to join the main nationalist movement, the African National Congress, when he returned to Northern Rhodesia.

An active participant in the country’s struggle for independence, he was eventually deported to Britain but, following statehood, was invited in 1965 to return by the new country’s president, Kenneth Kaunda.

By now a qualified engineer running a successful consultancy in England, Mr Zukas said he moved back to offer his professional expertise in major infrastructure projects.

A career in politics also followed: his efforts to persuade Mr Kaunda and his United National Independence Party to abandon a one-party state failed and, in 1990, he joined the drive towards multi-party politics, playing a leading role in its subsequent return.

Now 93, Mr Zukas was most recently leader of the Forum for Democracy and Development, an opposition political party. He retired from politics in 2005.

His wife Cynthia, an anti-apartheid activist from South Africa in the 1960s, made a name for herself in the world of art and cultural heritage. Six years ago, she was awarded an MBE.

But Zambian independence also triggered a change in the land laws and an exodus of white residents, including many from the Jewish community.

Today, just 12 Jews still live in the country and the last remaining synagogue in the capital, Lusaka, was sold — with the money donated to charities in both Zambia and Israel.

“There is,” Mr Zukas revealed, “a general wish to use our funds to build a small replacement synagogue but we have not as yet managed to find a suitable, affordable plot.”

And now, the remaining Jews in Zambia pray in their own homes.

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