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As the curtain falls: Farewell to my mentor-Thandika Mkandawire

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Thandika Mkandawire


In April 2016, a group of African scholars gathered in Lilongwe, Malawi to celebrate the 75th Birthday of Thandika Mkandawire, though belatedly. This was under the auspices of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) when Ebrima Sall was the Executive Secretary of the organisation. Jimi Adesina of the University of South Africa (UNISA), a close friend and ally of Thandika, had worked very hard with Ebrima, to put the conference together. It was a celebration of life for one of Africa’s best and brightest. For Thandika, it was a sweet return back home after many years in exile, having left Malawi during the dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda. In turn, we reeled out eulogy for Africa’s most profound development scholar and political economist, whose orginality, depth, and versatility of thinking and knowledge, is unparralled. Little did we know that we would never have that opportunity again to celebrate him while alive.

The last two times I was in touch with Thandika was, first when he was not feeling well, and I was informed about it. He was in Sweden and I called him up. We chatted and I prayed that “may GOD grant him speedy recovery”. Thandika responded in his usual humorous way that while we wait on GOD, for now, “he was in the hands of his wife and the Swedish welfare state”. The state works in Sweden and efficiently well too. Thandika recovered and was back on his feet. In the second time, I had reached out to him, that Cyril Obi and I had decided to dedicate our forthcoming edited book on: “Developmental Regionalism and Economic Transformation in Southern Africa” being published by Routledge Publishers, to him. In his usual modesty, Thandika didn’t say much. Unfortunately, Thandika never lived to see and read the book; the book is to be released in June 2020.

As a young academic in the early 1990s, four scholars had profound influence on me, mentored and nurtured my career in different ways. These were Archie Mafeje, Thandika Mkandawire, Mahmood Mamdani and Abdalla Bujra. The former two- Mafeje and Thandika have answered the call of the Almighty, and the latter two are still alive, though fairly old, and not as active as before. Archie Mafeje was the quintessential intellectual brand of the Oxbridge tradition, but of a radical bent. Exceedingly brilliant and knowledgeable, yet carried the aura of an intellectual sophisticat, who had little patience for poor academic discourse, arguments or scholarship. He would not associate with, or mill around those he could not engage in meaningful intellectual exchange. He chosed his academic friends very carefully, and ensured that those are people he could engage with, in serious intellectual debate. Rigour, hardwork, brilliance and dedication to the intellectual vocation were exemplified in Mafeje. In several encounters and conversations in Dakar, Addis Ababa, and a few other places, I learnt a lot from Mafeje, and he took me as his intellectual protege. Mafeje was a source of inspiration and admiration, in whom I saw the image of my future as a scholar.

Thandika Mkandawire like Mafeje was an intellectual dinosaur, but different in many respects, in his personality. Very friendly, approachable, and of a bohemian lifestyle, Thandika was open to conversation with anyone who seeks to engage him, and you cannot end a conversation with him, without learning something new. Thandika serving as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA, opened the floodgate of knowledge and opportunities to young scholars, and fought with all his strength, for the development of African social science scholarship. Under Thandika, several programmes, trainings, funding of academic projects, institutes like the African Governance and Gender Institutes, seminars, conferences, and meetings became the norm. CODESRIA under Thandika, was more popular to many social science scholars, than the universities. CODESRIA became the “mecca” of social science knowledge and scholarship, under
Thandika. Some of the most profound, innovative and pathbreaking knowledge and policy interventions and debates in Africa took place on CODESRIA’s platform and through its publications. Some of us were branded, “the Children of CODESRIA”. I met Thandika in 1995 during the African Governance Institute, in which I was a laureate.

Before then, I was already familiar with, and read a lot of his writings and publications. As Executive Secretary, he came to open the institute. In his opening remarks, Thandika noted that what CODESRIA had done was to provide us an opportunity; some who distinguish themselves will return back to be part of the community, while others will go back to their respective domains and will not be part of it. Thandika’s message sank deep in me; I promised myself quietly that I was going to return back to be part of the community, and so it was. As I became part of the ‘CODESRIA family’ participating in its academic projects, conferences and meetings, Thandika and I became friends; he became my mentor.

In his humility, although Thandika is far older than scholars of my generation with two decades of age difference, yet he insisted he must be addressed by his first name. Initially, I was reluctant, but he persisted that, thats how he should be called. This facilitated the breakdown of the generational barrier between us, and encouraged a seamless friendship that characterised our interaction. In and off the academic ground, Thandika was an incredibly lovely human being. He cared about people, cherished friendship, very simple and unassuming, and never showed off on anything. After the normal intellectual sessions at meetings, Thandika would mix with, and invite out to those close to him to informal gatherings and interactions; he was quite sociable. Offline, you will gain much more from Thandika, as he would engage you on diverse subjects and issues of developmental concern to the Continent. He was a man of immense energy. After a late night, Thandika would be the first to be in the office next day; looking good, quiet and settled and will work till late night. He was an extremely disciplined man. I could not match his energy, so I sometimes shy away from his invitations.

But as age began to catch up, the energy level started diminishing. Our last social outing was in Cape Town about two years ago. The pace had slowed down dramatically, and Thandika could not stay the evening. In the company of Daniel Munene, a friend and staff of the University of Cape Town, Thandika was the first to request to call off the night; I knew that the centre was begining to crack and our lovely Thandika was showing signs of a withering flower. Thandika’s intellectual contributions to social science scholarship will remain outstanding and relevant for generations yet to come.

An unorthodox thinker, Thandika interprets social phenemena in different ways, negate extant knowledge and gives new meaning to social dynamics. His arguments and logic are often foolproof, constructs his discourse on strong theoretical basis, and weaves his storyline in a well knitted way that makes it difficult to fault his reasoning. He was a pan-Africanist par excellence, for whom the African project is of utmost necessity. An incurable optimist on the African project, Thandika had no time to agonise about the deplorable condition of Africa; rather, for him, thinking the Continent out its development morass is a task that must be done.

From the structural adjustment programme, to the issue of the role and purposes of the State, to the intepretation of Africa’s economic and political crisis, and African social policy, Thandika was an original and profound thinker, who charted new frontiers of knowledge and dubunked the often wired interpretation or patronising arguments that Africanists’ scholars make. Thandika was very unapologetic about his views and ideas, yet courted the friendship of those he fundamentally disagreed with, intellectually. There would be a platform (or several platforms) to celebrate the ideas, life and times of this African colossus, I will therefore not delve into it that much.

As the curtain falls, the first generation of post-independent African scholars are gradually taking their glorious exit from the stage, leaving a big vaccum of knowledge in its wake. These include Thandika Mkandawire, Archie Mafeje, Claude Ake, Dani Nabudere, Haroub Othman, Ali Mazrui, and Samir Amin. Their contributions to the advancement of knowledge are immeasurable, and so is the mark they have left on the sands of time. Thandika ran a good race, and got to the finish line. He might not have won the trophy as the trophy for him is Africa’s economic and political transformation and development, which is yet to be achieved. But he has laid the pathways, constructed the foundation, and given the torch to others to carry on.
I would miss Thandika; the African and global social science community will miss him; CODESRIA would miss him; and so are his loved ones.
Adejumobi wrote from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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