Tribute to Thandika Mkandawire: An African Intellectual Giant

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On 27 March 2020, Thandika Mkandawire, a Malawian professor of economics, died in Stockholm. With COVID-19 dominating global attention and headlines, it is understandable that Mkandawire’s death has gone by with less than deserving recognition. Worrying still is the possibility that many African intellectuals and leaders do not know the ideas, let alone try to adopt them, of Mkandawire. I am one of the unfortunate academic neophytes that never had the opportunity to meet Professor Mkandawire. The only chance I got to communicate with him was through email when I was doing my honours studies circa 2013. I was enamoured of his thought and writing and I wanted to seek more advice on how I can shape my ideas on Africa’s possible paths to development. Through his prompt response and elation at the fact that I was from Zambia, a country that he said he knew very well and also considered his home, I could feel, through this remote correspondence the selfless, humble but imposing personality of Thandika Mkandawire.  

In an illustrious career spanning over five decades, Mkandawire has contributed immensely to African scholarship. He was Executive Secretary of Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) from 1985 to 1996, an organisation that described him as a brilliant economist and prodigious scholar whose works on African political economy challenged dominant ways of seeing the African continent on a wide range of issues that included structural adjustment and economic reform, democratic politics, neopatrimonialism and insurgent violence. He also held a distinguished professorship at the London School of Economics (LSE). To Africans, especially intellectuals, university administrators and leaders in various contexts, Mkandawire bequeaths a legacy that can only be ignored at one’s peril. 

In his analysis of developmentalism, Mkandawire acknowledges that the developmental state formula helped East Asian countries to improve their economies. His acknowledgement was qualified, however. He noted the temptation of African countries to go the Asian way, thereby eroding democratic institutions in the quest for economic growth. This temptation is real, as often cited in characterisations such as Rwanda as the African Singapore. Mkandawire was unwavering in his conviction that Africa should chart its path to development, one that could blend the spirit of developmentalism and retention of democratic ideals. This is important for an Africa that is still struggling with both economic progress and political stability. Mkandawire also had an intrinsic understanding of Africa’s political maturation. He noted that while from independence to the end of the Cold War African leaders were proud just to keep their countries intact, Africa should now move beyond that to build institutions that will bring development to Africa. 

Apart from political commentary, Mkandawire will also go down as champion of African scholarship. In this respect, again, Mkandawire kept his gaze on historical cycles. At his inaugural lecture at the LSE, he noted four generations of African scholars. The first generation went to mostly Western institutions in the 1960s, came back to Africa in the 1970s and became the first African intelligentsia. The second generation came back to Africa but later left the continent, with some going back to institutions at which they were educated. The third generation has not come back. However, the fourth generation of Africans is characterized by scholars who acquire high academic qualifications on the continent and go on to hold important positions on the continent. 

This reality enhances the importance of education in Africa because, irrespective of the challenges besetting African universities, these institutions are producing Africa’s intelligentsia and individuals on whose shoulders will rest the responsibility of leading this continent. While the numbers of university enrolment have been growing exponentially, the quality of education in Africa remains a subject of debate. Universities have a lot of responsibility in improving areas of research that could change universities from centres primarily for teaching as they were during their establishment. African universities should now be realms of knowledge production and lecturers that are in charge of facilitating and supervising learning and research should be given reasons to stay on the continent and do their work diligently. In a review of Africa Beyond Recovery, a book written by Mkandawire, Michael Chasukwa decries what he describes as academic capitalism, rooted in the culture of consultancy as a survival strategy for the underpaid academics, which contributes to the weakening of scholarship in African universities. These are facts awaiting rectification. 

The life of Mkandawire bears testimony to the fact that Africans can rise from any circumstances to rival and even surpass the minds of people born under more fortunate circumstances. It is laudable that he noted the importance of Africans who remain on the continent. Developing Africa’s political, economic, social and educational spaces will require an active citizenry that holds political officials to account, a patriotic intelligentsia that is uninhibited in its objective pursuit of knowledge and responsible and responsive political principals that listen to sound reason and policy and do their utmost to implement them. A realisation of such an Africa could be the most befitting tribute that one gives to lodestars in the rank of Professor Mkandawire.

Emmanuel Matambo is a senior researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg

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