In memoriam: Remembering Thandika Mkandawire

What you need to know:

  • African scholar. The first and second generations of African scholars are pretty-much gone now.
  • Thandika belonged to what one would call the second generation (overlapping the first generation) of post-independence African scholars who came of age shortly after independence.

The world is in lockdown, is the universally trending word. The raging global pandemic has seized every space and captured everyone’s imagination. It is sombre times.

The focus all around the world is on wrestling down the current nightmare of a disease so unconventional in its contagion and unprecedented in unleashing fear.

Quite understandably, major news headlines and social media commentaries are on this singular monster whose impact going forward no one can state precisely and certainly.

No one knows for sure how many infections and deaths the world will have counted by the time the pandemic is behind us. Statistical modelling and forecasting by experts and specialists can only make rough estimates and give tentative suggestions but which may turn out to be overstated or underestimated.

In the midst of the gloom of covid-19, we woke up last Saturday to the devastating news of the passing of Prof Thandika Mkandawire, Malawian national, Pan-African intellectual and a true embodiment of an African citizen intellectual.

Dear readers, with your kind understanding and generous deference, I thought I should detract a little and say a few words to remember one of Africa’s most important public intellectuals.

Thandika belonged to what one would call the second generation (overlapping the first generation) of post-independence African scholars who came of age shortly after independence.

Forced into exile for his critical activism against the autocratic rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Malawi, Thandika attended university in America and later made his way back to the continent. He initially worked in Zimbabwe after that country won independence in 1980 but subsequently found a congenial base in Dakar – at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research (CODESRIA).

In Dakar, Thandika had the able and inspiring company of Samir Amin, the founding executive secretary of CODESRIA and eminent Egyptian Marxist thinker. He led CODESRIA for 10 years before leaving the continent, again, this time to take up a position with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva. At the time of his death, he held a professorial appointment in African development at the London School of Economics.

I am not qualified enough to write about Thandika’s work and his legacy, but having encountered him a few times, most recently at CODESRIA triennial 2018 General Assembly in Dakar, and benefitted immeasurably from his published work, I can underscore a few points about what he stood for and the intellectual contribution he made to African social science.

The first and second generations of African scholars are pretty-much gone now. Only a few individuals remain, some already in retirement and others semi-retired, for example Issa Shivji in Tanzania and Mahmood Mamdani in Uganda.

The first generation of independent African thinkers, which included founding leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Leopold Senghor, was heavily invested in the national liberation project and became deeply ensconced to the State. Many ended up as part of the ruling classes, sloshed by state power and unable to provide independent scholarly intervention on key questions of the day.

The more younger and daring second generation, coming right on the heels of independence, among whom included Thandika and Joseph Ki-Zerbo in the Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), ran afoul of the new African rulers as creeping authoritarianism dashed the high hopes of liberation from colonialism.

Thandika represented a crop of scholars who maintained an unfailing faith in Africa and an uncompromising commitment to contributing to positive socioeconomic change in the continent.

He and a few others pursued a consistent stance against external imperialist machinations as well as authoritarian excesses, exposing the hollowness of structural adjustment policies and the neoliberal bedfellow while at the same time denouncing the autocracy of African rulers.

They performed their scholarly public service by combining institutional autonomy at CODESRIA (and other scholarly spaces) and speaking directly to the internal problems afflicting the continent. At the age of 79, Thandika had served his continent with dedication and distinction, leaving behind indelible marks as an impeccable public intellectual, influential scholar, teacher and mentor.

One of Thandika’s most important contributions, along with Samir Amin and Thandika’s compatriot Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, was to forcefully call out biased and misleading western scholarship undertaken with preconceived conclusions and stereotypes, using standards transposed from the west.

For many of us who benefited from his work, who he mentored and inspired, the wider African scholarly community and those invested in the still unfinished struggle for African liberation, we shall sorely miss Thandika’s kindness and invaluable presence. We wish him well on the other side.

Khisa is assistant professor at North Carolina State University (USA).
[email protected]


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