Mourners waving white handkerchiefs, Kenneth Kaunda's trademark symbol, paid tribute Friday at a memorial service for Zambia's first president, who died last month aged 97, as VIPs hailed him as one of southern Africa's great statesmen.

Neatly distanced in compliance with Covid rules, scores of Zambians stood on the terraces of the National Heroes Stadium in Lusaka, swaying to dirges and solemn music played by a military band.

A hero of the struggle against white-minority rule, Kaunda died on June 17 at a military hospital where he had been admitted with pneumonia.

RTL

Founding father: Kaunda was Zambia's first post-independence president / © AFP/File

He always carried a white handkerchief -- an item that he said symbolised love and peace, and which he started carrying while incarcerated during the struggle for independence.

A casket draped in the Zambian flag was driven on a gun carriage into the 60,000-capacity stadium and placed under a white marquee.

Zambia's founding father was then given a multiple gun salute.

Braving the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the southern African country, several foreign dignitaries and presidents flew to Lusaka to pay their respects.

Zambia is among Africa's top three countries reporting the highest number of new cases over the past week, after South Africa and Tunisia, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).

"Today is a passing of an era," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told mourners.

RTL

Zambia / © AFP

"Kaunda was the last surviving leader of the generation who lit the path to Africa's freedom from colonial misrule."

The African Union's commission chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, described Kaunda as "a unifier," a "giant among men."

"Had it not been for the selfless efforts of his generation, I would not be before you today, as the African Union would not exist," he noted.

Ghana's president, Nana Akufo-Addo, said "we are marking what is truly the end of an era on our continent... the last of the great freedom fighters, the philosopher king".

- 'Defeated Goliath of oppression' -

British junior foreign minister James Duddridge, representing Zambia's former colonial ruler, said Queen Elizabeth II was saddened by Kaunda's death and that "the world has lost a great man."

RTL

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, speaks with Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa during the memorial service / © AFP

Commonwealth Secretary-general Patricia Scotland described him as a "warrior who defeated the Goliath of oppression."

Kaunda, popularly known by his initials of KK, was president of Zambia for 27 years, taking the helm after the country gained independence in October 1964.

He headed the main nationalist group, the left-of-centre United National Independence Party.

He was nicknamed by some "Africa's Gandhi" for his non-violent, independence-related activism in the 1960s.

He hosted many of the movements fighting for independence or black equality in other countries around the continent -- sometimes at a heavy cost.

But his popularity at home waned as he became increasingly autocratic and banned all opposition parties.

He eventually ceded power in the first multi-party elections in 1991, losing to trade unionist Fredrick Chiluba.

- Taxi tribute -

Zambia declared a period of mourning after his death, with flags flown at half mast, while his body was taken around the country for the public to pay their respects.

He will be buried next Wednesday at the country's presidential burial site situated opposite the cabinet office in Lusaka.

RTL

© AFP

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera said Kaunda's burial would signify the "planting of a vibrant seed."

"From this seed, let's harvest a new African generation with new pan-Africanism... free from corruption," he urged.

Some taxi drivers in Lusaka drove with their headlights on as a way of mourning the country's founder.

"We have agreed here that we will be driving with our lights on as a way of mourning Dr Kaunda, shikulu (grandfather). The loss is too huge, not only here in Zambia but the entire world," driver Lazarus Daka, 37, told AFP.