Thandika Mkandawire – A global pan-African luminary

In 2011, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) had planned to hold a colloquium in Malawi, to celebrate the lifetime contributions to global knowledge of Professor Thandika Mkandawire. The colloquium was being co-organised with the University of Malawi and the Archie Mafeje Research Institute of the University of South Africa (UNISA). The dates for the conference were 2-4 May.

Three weeks before the colloquium, CODESRIA issued a statement announcing a postponement of the event. The reason for the postponement was “gross violations of academic freedom” in the University of Malawi. CODESRIA wanted to express solidarity with University of Malawi Chancellor College lecturers, who were on strike.

The strike was triggered by an event that happened on the evening of 12 February 2011. Then inspector general of the Malawi Police Service, Mr Peter Mukhito, had summoned University of Malawi political scientist, Professor Blessings Chinsinga. Professor Chinsinga was teaching a public policy course, and to illustrate a point, he used an example from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, referred to as the Arab Spring. One student in the class, a police officer, reported Professor Chinsinga to his supervisors in the police service. The ensuing academic freedom strike lasted beyond an academic year.

Celebrating a life

The colloquium eventually happened five years later, in April 2016, in Lilongwe. It was themed “Thinking African, Epistemological Issues: Celebrating the Life and Work of Thandika Mkandawire”.

A month earlier I had joined the Catholic University of Malawi. Attending participants came from 21 countries, according to the programme. There were 48 presentations, spread over 13 sessions. There were two keynote addresses, one by Thandika Mkandawire himself.

It was the fifth or sixth occasion of my meeting Thandika in person. The story of how I first heard about him some 26 years earlier is one I feel compelled to narrate.

I will describe how he brought me into his fold, inviting me to two of the institutions that shaped and defined his life’s work. I will discuss why Thandika’s work was important for Africa and for the world, and conclude with thoughts on the legacy he has left for the engaged academy in Malawi and beyond.

Let me start towards the end of my secondary school days. My English teacher, Mr Lot Dzonzi (who would go on to become inspector general of police and later Malawi’s deputy ambassador to the UN), wanted me to think of myself as a serious writer. He would take me to visit his friends who were writers and were teaching at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. Through Mr Dzonzi I got to meet and know the likes of Wokomaatani Malunga and Garton Kamchedzera.

He encouraged me to introduce myself to other writers as well. I met Prof Steve Chimombo (RIP), who introduced me to Dr Anthony Nazombe (RIP), both of whom were lecturers in the Chancellor College department of English. I showed them my poetry and fiction, and they generously offered feedback. I was not a University of Malawi student, but they still welcomed me in their offices and in the Chancellor College Writers' Workshop.

This was in 1989, and I was 18 years old. One such afternoon, I sat in Dr Nazombe’s office as he went through a poem I had written. We discussed several things, and at some point he mentioned the name Thandika Mkandawire, whom he said was executive secretary at CODESRIA. As a teenage secondary school leaver this did not mean very much to me, until about a decade later.

A prominent voice

In August 1997 I arrived in Iowa City in the American Midwest, to attend the University of Iowa’s International Writing Programme. It was the third time a Malawian writer was attending the programme. Edison Mpina (RIP) was the first Malawian to attend, in 1982, and Steve Chimombo followed in 1983.

A Malawian who was finishing his PhD in comparative literature at Iowa, Dean Makuluni, introduced me to NyasaNet, an email listserv for Malawians in the diaspora. These were very early days of the internet. Dean Makuluni helped me open my first email account and subscribe to NyasaNet, the first Malawian social media space. I soon found that Thandika was a prominent voice on the forum, sharing all kinds of content on Malawi’s history, African politics and global economics.

In 1998, Kofi Annan (RIP), then UN secretary general, appointed Thandika as executive director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). It was very big news, and I wrote an article on it. It was published by The Nation newspaper in Malawi. Later in 1998 I started graduate school at Iowa, and began taking a strong interest in Thandika’s academic work. That interest continued throughout my graduate school years.

Back in Malawi working on a teacher professional development project, Thandika sent me an email, sometime in 2011. He was alerting me to a programme the London School of Economics (LSE) was establishing. It was the Programme for African Leadership (PfAL), and LSE was inviting applications for the first cohort of fellows.

To establish the programme, LSE had received a generous donation from one of its alumni, Firoz Lalji, a Ugandan based in Canada. Thandika wanted to make sure I did not miss the opportunity. I applied, and in 2012 became one of the inaugural LSE PfAL fellows.

Thandika was one of our lecturers, and he focused on an area in which he had done pioneering research: developmental states. We had lectures from other world leading scholars in areas that included social policy, human rights, climate change, women, gender and population, and leadership ethics.

Long chats

In the course of the programme, Thandika took me to his office in the LSE department of international development, where we had long chats on various matters. To date, PfAL has trained more than 400 young Africans, including three other Malawians. PfAL is now part of a larger initiative under the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE.

From November 2014 to December 2015 Thandika was visiting professor and senior fellow in residence in the Building Bridges programme, in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (later renamed Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance). With the facilitation of Dr Marianne Camerer, programme director, Thandika gave a series of lectures and ran regional workshops around the broader theme of African economic integration.

African languages

The workshops were held in Dakar, Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, and involved up to 120 participants from 20 African countries. For the Dakar workshop in October 2015, Thandika and Marianne invited 21 scholars, including myself.

I was at the University of Botswana at the time, where one of the courses I was teaching was on curriculum and language policy in Africa. My presentation was titled “Breaking the Deadlock: Language, Integration and the African Renaissance”, in which I argued about the importance of African languages in the journey towards the African Renaissance.

In his reaction to my presentation, Thandika observed how African languages were enjoying a new lease of life through mobile phone companies which used local language themes in their product promotions. Thandika was a firm believer in the importance of African languages in African development. One testimony for that is a 2005 book he edited, titled African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development. Among the chapters in the book is one by Ngugi wa Thiong’o; another by Beban Sammy Chumbow.

Before I left Dakar to return to Gaborone, Thandika told me why he had invited me to attend. In the course of the workshop, Thandika had shared several stories about his time in Dakar in the 70s and then again in the mid-80s through to the mid-90s, when he served as executive secretary of CODESRIA.

Thandika wanted me to appreciate the role CODESRIA played in Africa’s intellectual life and research agenda. Having brought me to CODESRIA’s headquarters, it was important that I respond to and participate in as many CODESRIA events as possible. It would be a great thing for me to become a paid-up member, he added.

Thandika would repeat that advice when we met again, five months later. That was in April 2016, in Lilongwe, during the colloquium to celebrate his life and work. He said he had wanted me to participate because it was another CODESRIA event.

Signing up for CODESRIA

I eventually paid my membership to CODESRIA in 2018. That year, CODESRIA held its 15th General Assembly in Dakar, Senegal, a triennial event. When Thandika saw from the programme that I would be attending and presenting a paper, he sent me an email in which he asked me to bring recent issues of Malawi’s daily newspapers and magazines. I brought him copies of The Nation, the Daily Times and their weekend versions, and The Lamp magazine. He always kept up to date with what was going on in Malawi.

I arrived in Dakar on the afternoon of Saturday 15 December 2018. The following day, Sunday, David Nthengwe, a Dakar-based Malawian working for the United Nations, came to pick me up from my hotel. We joined Thandika and his wife Kaarina Klint at Le Cabanon, a restaurant overlooking the shimmering, expansive West African ocean.

As we got up to go to the lunch buffet, I noticed that everyone left their phones and tablets on the table. I asked David if it was safe to leave our gadgets on the table. "Very safe. Nobody would steal them here," he said. "You mean here at this restaurant, or...", but before I could finish, David replied: "I mean here in Senegal. People don't steal in this country." I was very surprised. "How do you build a country like that, with no thieves?" I asked. "Now that's a very good question. Let's ask Thandika."

Thandika thought it was because Senegal had not gone through the brutality and hardships of other African countries. "When people are treated kindly by their governments, they treat each other kindly too. They do not become violent criminals" (paraphrased).

We spent much of that afternoon listening to Thandika talk about his youth in Zambia and Malawi, his secondary school days at Zomba Catholic, his active participation in the struggle for Malawi's independence, his journalism days at the Malawi News in the early 60s, and other fascinating topics. He told us about how Aleke Banda turned down a scholarship to study for a degree at Harvard, opting to work on the forefront of the struggle for Malawi’s independence.

He told us about his own studies in the US, becoming stateless in Ecuador during a research trip, and ending up in Sweden where he was offered citizenship. It was chilling to hear him say he met, in Sweden, one of the people who betrayed him, leading to Kamuzu Banda’s order to strip Thandika of his Malawian citizenship. He retold a story he had told me back in 2016.

While living in Dakar in the 70s and again in the 80s, a group of Malawian government officials came to study for their masters degrees. Thandika taught some of the courses in the programme. On completing their degrees, the Malawians refused to take their theses back with them to Malawi where Kamuzu Banda’s machinery was notorious for putting people into detention without trial for things they had written, even for research.

One of the former students from the 70s came to meet Thandika in Lilongwe in 2016. “Do you remember the story I told you about those Malawians who came to Dakar for their masters degrees, but left their theses behind for fear of Kamuzu?” he asked me, pointing toward a Malawian who had come to greet him. “He was one of them.” We all laughed loudly.

The importance of Samir Amin

Among the most memorable sessions at the 2018 CODESRIA General Assembly was a tribute to the late professor Samir Amin, an Egyptian Pan-Africanist and political economist who died in August that year. Many scholars present spoke about Amin and his contributions to African institutions, scholarship and freedom. An entire special issue of the CODESRIA Bulletin was dedicated to reflections on Amin’s life and work.

As director of the African Institute for Economic Development Planning (IDEP) in Dakar, Amin gave CODESRIA an institutional home and a foundation. He became CODESRIA’s inaugural executive secretary, and among the people he worked with in the early years was Thandika.

That evening of Thursday 20 December 2018, the penultimate day of the 15th CODESRIA General Assembly in Dakar, Thandika spoke last and closed the Samir Amin tribute session. He said no one had shaped his life the way Samir Amin had.

He spoke about how he first met Amin in Stockholm, Sweden. As a student there, Thandika had penned a rather critical review of Amin’s book and sent it to him, not knowing Amin would be coming to Stockholm. But when he did, Thandika invited him home and they discussed Thandika’s review, among other things. “Samir Amin was opposed to typologies but ironically he wrote the best treatment of typologies in African economies,” said Thandika.

He went on to say Amin was both Marxist and nationalist, something that was hard for the left, including for people like Kwame Nkrumah and Claude Ake. Said Thandika: “The worst sin you could commit with Samir Amin was not to be nationalist. You could be a bad Marxist, do bad class analysis, but you could set him off if you were not nationalist in the sense of defending Africa and Africa's interests. We will miss Samir Amin. The world will miss Samir Amin in that sense.”

By April 2016 Thandika had 91 publications to his name, according to the programme document CODESRIA printed for the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work.

There were 20 pieces he had written in various outlets; 24 book chapters; 35 journal articles, and 10 books he had authored or edited. He published a few more works after that, but was spending much of his time working on a book which he hoped would be the most definitive expression of his overall thoughts on how international financial institutions had shaped development economics and African economies.

Problems of knowledge

A good overview of Thandika’s thought over the decades can be found in two events.

The first is his inaugural lecture when he became professor and the first ever chair of African development at the London School of Economics. He gave that lecture on 27 April 2010. Titled “Running while others walk: Knowledge and the challenge of Africa’s development,” it was a much-anticipated event.

Thandika argued in the lecture that Africa’s development problems were problems of knowledge and the undermining of African expertise and experience. He argued for broader systems of education and knowledge, observing that human capital models and education for all campaigns were too narrow to deliver the transformation that Africa needed.

Thandika blamed the problems of African development on types of biases, including anti-education, anti-intellectual and anti-elite biases. The aid establishment had created a reward system that favoured consultancy reports over peer-reviewed journal articles, effectively sidelining home-grown African knowledge. “A people’s existence is not defined only by their material conditions but also by their ideas and moral views. Africans do not live by bread alone. That said, bread matters,” said Thandika in the inaugural lecture.

He argued that the crisis of African development, brought about largely by neoliberal policies, was related to the crisis of African universities. He called on Africanists at Western institutions such as the LSE to support their African colleagues “against the ravages of the consultancy syndrome that rewards reports over refereed academic papers”. He also asked Western academics to support African academics against what he termed the “criminal negligence” of African governments that gave way to pressures to commercialise education systems.

A second occasion that provides a brief yet comprehensive narrative of Thandika’s intellectual biography is an interview he gave to Kate Meagher, published in a 2019 issue of the journal Development and Change, from the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. The interview was published under the title “Reflections of an Engaged Economist: An Interview with Thandika Mkandawire”.

The Great African Depression

In the interview, Thandika articulated his views on what two decades of structural adjustment policies had done to African economies. He said compared to the American Great Depression of the 1930s, the period of structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in Africa lasted much longer. We should call it, he suggested, the Great African Depression.

Three decades after the SAPs, per capita incomes in Africa were yet to return to those of the 70s. The World Bank, he observed, had been expressing mea culpas over their policies on infrastructure, higher education, state institutions, sequencing of policies, and policy ownership, among others. “If you have that many mea culpas, you create an economy, and that economy behaves in a particular way. These are some of the legacies we should be looking at to understand African economies, not just colonial or pre-colonial legacies.”

Thandika was equally critical of African governments as he was of “their peripatetic international advisers”. But there was a distinction: “The latter could always walk away from the scene of crime, while African policymakers were left with the smoking gun.”

Thandika said he was critical of both “Hopeless Africa” and “Africa rising” tropes, which he said neglected the history of their legacies and consequences on current realities. Whereas the Great Depression in the West had led to many new economic ideas, in Africa the neoliberal hegemony had blocked any new thinking.

Arguing that SAPs had eroded capacities of African states to capture rents from commodity booms, he used the example of Chile which made US$35 billion from copper, while Zambia made only US$200 million from its copper. The erosion of human capital led to the neglect of higher education, resulting in the brain drain, and in the incapacitation of African institutions.

As currently practised, Thandika was critical of social policy in Africa, which he said was largely donor-driven, and did not link to socio-economic transformation. He said donors had been very clever in “using the little money they give to leverage the entire policy regime”. He urged African governments to seriously focus on domestic resource mobilisation.

“No amount of foreign capital will satisfy the needs of the continent,” he said. The majority of global savings, 61%, goes to the United States. China was able to industrialise through domestic savings, relying on foreign investment only for technology, not capital. SAPs had subdued Africa’s aspirations and had limited the continent’s visions, said Thandika.

Thandika’s numerous works provide greater detail of this and many of his groundbreaking ideas, but it is not the purpose of this piece to get into that kind of detail.

Legacy for Malawi’s academic space

As I draw to the conclusion of this tribute, I would like to return to my last meeting with Thandika, and then back to the 2016 colloquium and the legacy it created for Malawi’s academic space.

My last in-person meeting with Thandika was in December 2018. On the day I arrived in Dakar for the CODESRIA General Assembly, I bumped into him in the lobby of the King Fahd Palace Hotel. We exchanged greetings, and I handed over to him the newspapers and magazines I had brought from Malawi.

I asked him about the book he had said he had been working on for some years. He beckoned for me to sit down. He took out his laptop, opened a document, and went to a page with a graph. That graph, he said, showed how much African economies had been growing from the time of independence, up to the time of the SAPs. The decline was dramatic. He said he still had some work to do on the manuscript before completion.

After the colloquium to celebrate Thandika’s life and work in 2016, I returned to campus at the Catholic University of Malawi with a new determination. It had been a phenomenal week celebrating Thandika and engaging in fascinating conversations about higher education in Malawi and in Africa. There had to be a way of continuing with those conversations, at least for the Malawians.

On 28 April 2016, I sent out an email to 25 friends and colleagues at universities in Malawi and abroad. I asked if there was an association of Malawian university lecturers, and if there was an online forum where they shared ideas. It seemed there was none. I shared an idea about creating a Google forum, to be called Higher Ed Malawi. A handful responded and encouraged the idea.

“I think the forum is a brilliant idea but you may have to have a light touch moderation to avoid sectarian capture,” was Thandika’s advice. He became an active presence on the forum.

To date, the forum has just over 400 participants, drawn from universities and colleges in Malawi and beyond. In June 2018, Malawian academics from the forum organised the first ever international higher education conference, under the theme “Higher Education in the 21st Century”.

As the conference came to an end, the organising committee was reconstituted, and converted into a task force charged with the responsibility of creating the Universities and Colleges Association of Malawi. The new committee is organising the next international higher education conference, to be held later this year.

Admiring the breadth, depth and originality of Thandika’s ideas, I have sometimes wished I had become a development economist myself. But Thandika was much more than a development economist. He transcended disciplinary boundaries. He was a transdisciplinary intellectual and provided penetrating insights into complex global problems. I have attempted to follow his path by being an eclectic reader and lifelong student of ideas.

As one whose main thrust is curriculum and the education of teachers, and latterly public policy, I have drawn insights from Thandika’s views on human knowledge. I have used epistemological lenses to develop a sociological perspective of knowledge production for the purpose that Julius Nyerere ascribed to education in Africa.

Nyerere ascribed two purposes to education. One was the process by which a society passes on to the next generation the knowledge and values it holds to be important. The other was a duty to contribute to society and to the greater good of humanity.

Thandika fulfilled both purposes, and he has passed on the mantle. May his kind, gentle and compassionate soul rest in peace.

This tribute first appeared as a blogpost on afrika aphukira on 31 March 2020 under the heading “Transcendental Thandika: Tribute to a Global Pan-African Luminary.”

Dr Steve Sharra is a senior research and policy analyst at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP). He writes in his personal capacity.