Thandika Mkandawire: a tree for African intellectuals to lean and consult

Professor Thandika Mkandawire, the Malawian economist, passed away in late March. Influential African intellectuals, as well as his many admirers and academics the world over, are still distilling the disappearance of one of the most prolific and creative minds they have ever come across.

The disheartening news hit me while under confinement in Cape Town, thinking about the effect Covid-19 was going to provoke across the continent. My first thoughts were about the paradoxes of life.

At the very time we were going to need Thandika so much — to shepherd us with his constant enthusiasm and energy towards reflection on solutions, alternatives, contestation and doubt — he was gone. It was a selfish thought, I concede, but one that is in line with the way his friends and comrades thought of him. He was like a solid tree — a tree that was there for all to lean on and consult, a reference in the landscape. What about the leaves that sprout from a branch when the branch itself has disappeared, gone? They are thin, vulnerable. Left by themselves, the leaves lose colour and energy. That was the way, I am sure, many of us felt.

Obituaries written on Thandika remind us his legacy must be passed to the younger generation. I agree. It was people like him that shaped my generation seeking a pan-African public engagement.

Thandika was born almost 80 years ago in Zimbabwe. His early life was punctuated with difficulties, before he moved abroad to study at Ohio State University. Political choices marked his life from that time, obliging him to live in Sweden (where he acquired nationality), Zimbabwe and Senegal, where he led the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria).

It was at the Fann Residence neighborhood of Dakar, where Codesria headquarters was located in the early 1980s, that I first met him. I had heard so much about his contributions from Mário de Andrade, the first president of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola and former chief editor of the famous Paris-based journal Présence Africaine, under whose umbrella I started my professional career in Guinea-Bissau. When I visited Dakar, it was to request Thandika’s support for a young group of researchers that had the audacity of establishing Guinea- Bissau’s first national research institution.

Thandika was generous with his time and invited me for dinner the very first day we met. He was enthusiastic about Guinea-Bissau’s prospects, pledged to help and followed-up with multiple initiatives. I would venture to say a lot of what we ended up accomplishing as a group was to not disappoint him. We were so proud of his recognition. But he did all he did as a matter of fact. It was natural in him to share, to self-efface and to totally embrace every challenge with humour.

Thandika was the antithesis of authority. In fact, he has devoted a great deal of effort to explain why African intellectuals were often forgotten. But what mattered for him was that they were being forgotten by the owners of the narrative, like the “Africanists”, not the owners of state or economic power. He was adamant that African intellectuals’ analytical contribution was fundamental, their explanation of complexity irreplaceable, provided they themselves were not alienated by the exercise of power to pursue grandeur and notability.

Thandika will be remembered as one of the most important contributors for the construction of a new African narrative. During his 10 years as Codesria’s executive secretary he became the glue for social sciences across the continent, decisively unifying its various artificial linguistic borders and academic traditions. He gently started this journey under the wings of Samir Amin and the Dependency School, before helping construct a more inquisitive approach to explain Africa’s political economy. At that time there was no talk of influencers; we rather used the term organic intellectuals, following the Gramscian tradition. Otherwise we would have recognized in Thandika the ultimate influencer that he was. He marked the last 40 years of African social sciences, with new ideas and frames of discussion.

Thinking about the Developmental States in Africa, written in 2001, is a landmark interpretation of structural transformation that today is more relevant than ever. The same could be said of Thandika’s robust response to the structural adjustment approach, initially formulated by the Berg Report ― a report that dominated Africa’s policy space for more than 20 years through the ill-famed Washington Consensus. His rebuttal boosted the resistance.

When later in life I was helping formulate a critique of technical co-operation, he joined the party with a brilliant essay on the changes required for a functional administration capable of responding to social imperatives. In fact, Thandika’s constant interrogation of the social dimensions of the development debate, certainly inspired by his exposure to the Swedish social democratic experiment, made him a good fit to lead the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), from 1998 to 2009. His articleTransformative Social Policy and Innovation in Developing Countries, originally positioned the debate on what is today a universal agenda for renewed social protection.

His last two years at the helm of UNRISD coincided with my appointment to lead its twin institute, the UN Institute for Training and Research, and that of Yash Tandon to lead the South Centre. We found ourselves a way — in the same cold city of Geneva — to firm up our common agenda to further Africa’s research agenda for transformation.

Thandika Mkandawire was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Helsinki, University of Ghana and York University. He was chair and professor of African Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Olof Palme Professor for Peace with the Swedish Institute for Future Studies, as well as Honorary Professor at my current institution, the Nelson Mandela School of Governance at the University of Cape town.

But he will be remembered as the beacon of Codesria; the branch we — the leaves — will continue to lean on, now in memory.

Read the blog here

First published by Mail & Guardian