Thandika Mkandawire, Pan-Africanist Par Excellence

Thandika Mkandawire, Pan-Africanist Par Excellence

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Apr 27 2020 (IPS)

Thandika Mkandawire (1940-2020) had a wicked sense of humour. But he was so considerate that he often made himself the butt of his jokes which typically had a moral. When others struggled to pronounce his surname, he would help them out, “Me kinda weary”.

Thandika Mkandawire. Credit: CODESRIA

But as tired as he might have been, he would often summon up the energy for yet another struggle. As Thandika was never one for self-pity, I shall always be ashamed that I did not know that he had succumbed to his third battle with cancer on 27 March.

Loving Africa, loving life
Blessed at birth with two Pan-Africanist names, he was always generous with me, for which I shall always be most grateful. Through example, he showed that a progressive pan-Africanist could be anti-imperialist without being racist, ethno-populist or jingoist.

Although both trained as economists, we rarely ‘talked shop’, and then usually about some new controversy in economics, preferring instead to banter about everything else which interested us, where there was far more coincidence than I ever expected.

His intellectual reputation had preceded him when we first met a quarter century ago in Dakar, listening to West African instrumental music as I tried to meet filmmaker, author and former railway worker, Ousmane Sembene. Later I learnt that Thandika was even an impresario of sorts for Senegalese singing sensation, Youssou N’Dour.

In Buenos Aires for a UNESCO conference years later, we were on a panel with the late Brazilian First Lady Ruth Cardoso and then Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Again, he reminded me of his joie de vivre, tangoing in La Boca and listening to the music of Astor Piazzolla and Daniel Barenboim. In Johannesburg more years hence, he introduced me to South African pianist extraordinaire, Abdullah Ibrahim.

A life in exile
Having experienced racist settler colonialism, African despotism and other social injustices first-hand, Thandika’s experiences undoubtedly shaped his choices and thinking. From an early age, his family was forced to move — first from his mother’s Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, to Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, and then to his father’s Malawi, then Nyasaland, where he had his secondary education.

Thandika became active in nationalist student politics, then served as assistant editor of Malawi News for the newly formed Malawi Congress Party. Then accused of sedition and inciting violence, he was sentenced to 18 months hard labour after a farce of a trial. On appeal, he was released after three months breaking rocks in a colonial prison.

He later went to study journalism and economics in the US, but could not return after several student activists, including Dr Guy Mhone of the International Labour Office (ILO), had their passports withdrawn by Malawian dictator Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1965.

Stranded for a period in Ecuador, he became a political refugee in Sweden. After a difficult transition, he taught economics in Swedish at the University of Stockholm with Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal. His appreciation of social democracy and the now much maligned ‘welfare state’ grew during this unplanned extended sojourn.

African researchers unite
After a decade in Sweden, Thandika returned to his beloved continent with grants to visit several research institutions. One planned six-month trip later extended to 13 years, including a decade (1986-1996) helming the Council for the Development of Social Science Research (CODESRIA), following the renowned Samir Amin and then Abdulla Bujra.

Advancing African sovereignty required protecting and advancing progressive intellectual development with African scholars at the forefront. CODESRIA saw academic freedom as necessary for African universities to fulfil their crucial role in development.

Thandika’s tenure as Executive Secretary was marked by tremendous organizational innovation, and mobilization of the researchers themselves, rather than their institutions, around emerging themes, often even before they became fads elsewhere.

Against the tides
Despite a quarter century of African economic stagnation from the late 1970s, Thandika rejected the widespread mood of ‘Afro-pessimism’ among Western scholars of African development, including ostensibly radical social scientists.

Instead, he argued that the African malaise was an outcome of its unique colonial and post-colonial histories rather than due to something inherently African.

He also consistently rejected the neoliberal development ‘solutions’, strategies and policies strongly recommended, if not demanded as conditionalities by international financial institutions and like-minded foreign economic advisors and consultants from the 1980s.

Thandika reminded us how well Africa had done economically and socially, e.g., in extending education and health provision, in the early years after independence before the counter-revolution against development economics.

Almost single-handedly, he countered the narrative that African states were too corrupt to bring about development, urging Africans to look to East Asian and other developmental states while rejecting authoritarianism as necessary for such development.

Social development and the UN
From 1998 to 2009, Thandika served as Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) in Geneva where his considerable mobilization and fund-raising skills, honed at CODESRIA, injected new life into UNRISD as it entered the new century.

The uniquely independent, but unfunded research institute had first been established by later Nobel economics laureates Jan Tinbergen and Myrdal in the mid-1960s, to mobilise researchers to work on pressing social issues in the course of economic development.

Under Thandika’s leadership, UNRISD provided the analytical heft to the ILO (International Labour Organization) initiated campaign to address inequality and universal social protection, leading to the social dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals, instead of the Millennium Development Goals’ narrow World Bank inspired focus on poverty and targeted social safety nets.

Thandika was also instrumental in helping establish International Development Economics Associates (IDEAS), led by Professor Jayati Ghosh from Delhi, as a South-based network of heterodox development economists, hosting the founding conference in Cape Town days before 9/11 in 2001.

Leaving UNRISD, Thandika became Professor at Stockholm’s Institute for Future Studies and then first Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics. Africa’s best-known imperialist must surely have squirmed in his grave when Rhodes University recognized Thandika’s work with an earned doctorate, i.e., not honoris causa.

Viva Thandika! A luta continua
Thandika had a life well lived indeed, much richer than most of us can even imagine. Sadly, persistent patterns of intellectual hegemony and his iconoclastic predilection and democratic insistence are likely to prevent the typically universal implications of much of his oeuvre from being more widely appreciated.

Thankfully, despite, or perhaps because of various hardships, including long exile, his wide ranging, progressive intellectual legacy extends beyond his ideas and writings to include the initiatives and opportunities he selflessly created for African intellectuals at CODESRIA.

While he published some of his most significant work after UNRISD, being the perfectionist that he was and still rethinking so much, there was much more in the pipeline which he hesitated to put out, which I hope his family will let Codesria publish as works in progress with his erstwhile colleague and intellectual biographer Yusuf Bangura as editor.

The post Thandika Mkandawire, Pan-Africanist Par Excellence appeared first on Inter Press Service.

You might also enjoy

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

Conférence de Presse en Ligne

Les frontières terrestres ne doivent pas constituer des obstacles à la dissémination de votre message. Grâce à notre service de conférence de presse en ligne, nous vous offrons l’opportunité de vous rapprocher des médias africains, chaque fois que vous en aurez besoin.

Nos services comprennent:

Digital Communications

Today, social networks constitute an organization’s first point of contact with a user and a potential customer. At first glance, you need to convince of the relevance and quality of your content to stimulate and motivate the user to go further. We create consistently inspiring online strategy to meet business objectives, engage stakeholders and enhance our client brand’s reputation internally and externally.


Communication​ digitale

Les réseaux sociaux représentent aujourd’hui le premier point de contact d’une organisation avec un utilisateur et un client potentiel. Au premier coup d’œil, vous devez le convaincre de la pertinence et de la qualité de votre contenu pour l’inciter à aller plus loin. Nous créons pour vous une stratégie de communication précise et adaptée sur les réseaux sociaux pour atteindre les objectifs commerciaux, impliquer les parties prenantes et améliorer la réputation de votre marque en interne et en externe.

Promotion​ d’événements

Le succès d’un événement réside en moitié dans sa promotion. Peu importe la beauté de l’événement, la qualité des orateurs et de l’ordre du jour, si personne ne rapporte ou ne parle de votre événement, vos efforts seront vains. Nous vous aidons à façonner votre récit et à créer un engouement autour de votre événement. De l’annonce de l’événement à la tenue de celui-ci, nous accompagnons votre effort de planification et le reflétons sur toutes les plateformes médiatiques.​

Formation​ Médiatique

Nous fournissons à vos porte-paroles les outils nécessaires pour présenter vos principaux messages et répondre avec confiance et cohérence aux questions. Notre formation est organisée soit à distance ou en présentiel, avec des études de cas réels et des répétitions. Nos clients repartent avec le sentiment d’être à l’aise devant les journalistes et d’agir en tant qu’ambassadeurs de la marque.

Veille​ Médiatique

Nous mesurons votre portée en relations publiques et rendons compte des informations de votre industrie et des activités de vos  concurrents en surveillant la majorité des canaux de diffusion dans toute l’Afrique. Une veille médiatique complète et opportune est essentielle pour s’assurer que vous ne manquez aucune référence à votre marque, que vous êtes constamment informé de ce qui se passe dans votre industrie et que vous êtes prêt à saisir les opportunités et à réduire les risques en temps opportun.

Relations​ Média

Peu importe le lieu où ils se trouvent, nous sommes une source d‘informations fiables pour les journalistes qui écrivent sur l’Afrique. Nous nous connaissons mutuellement et ils nous font confiance, car nous leur fournissons un contenu crédible qui les aide dans leurs tâches. Nous nous entretenons quotidiennement avec des journalistes aux quatre coins du continent, ce qui fait de nous l’un des organismes les plus efficaces pour mener des campagnes de relations avec les médias.

Stratégie et développement de contenu

Nous créons des stratégies de communication intelligentes, bien documentées et spécialisées destinées à vous aider à construire un récit fort qui engagera votre audience. Nous travaillons en synergie avec vous afin de rédiger des communiqués de presse et des articles d’opinions qui alimentent le récit de votre entreprise. Notre équipe a une expérience approfondie dans la création de récits et le développement de contenu multimédia.


C’est le service phare d’AMA. Nous avons mis en place des canaux de diffusion des communiqués de presse auprès des journalistes des 54 États africains ainsi qu’auprès des journalistes américains et européens couvrant les sujets relatifs aux marchés émergents.​

​Nos services comprennent:​

Event Promotion

Half of the success of an event lays in its promotion. Doesn’t matter how beautiful the event is, how wonderful the speakers and the agenda are, if no one reports or talks about your event, your efforts are gone. We help you shape the narrative and create a drumbeat around your event. From the announce all the way to the outcome of the event, we accompany your planning effort and echo it through all media platforms

Media Training

We provide your spokespeople with the tools to present your key messages and answer questions with confidence and coherence. Our training is organised either remotely or face-to- face, with real case studies and rehearsals. Our clients leave feeling comfortable being in front of reporters and acting as brand ambassadors.

Media Monitoring

We measure and report on
your PR reach, industry news, and competitive activity by monitoring most channels in North, West, Central, East and Southern Africa. Comprehensive and timely media monitoring is critical to ensuring that you don’t miss any reporting of your brand,
you’re constantly informed on what’s going on around your business, and you’re ready to capitalise on opportunities and mitigate
risks in a timely fashion..

Media Relations

We have become an authoritative source of news for reporters writing about Africa, wherever they are. We know them, they know us, and they trust us for providing them with timely and accurate content that helps them do their job. We speak to reporters on a daily basis in all corners of the continent and this makes us one of the most effective agencies in running media relations campaigns.

Strategy & Content Development

We create smart and localised communications strategies to help build a strong narrative that will engage your audiences. We partner with you to create press releases and thought leadership pieces that sustain a drumbeat for your company’s narrative. Our team have deep experience in shaping narratives and developing media content.


This is AMA’s flagship service. We have set up channels of distribution towards the journalists of the 54 African states, as well as to American journalists and European journalists covering emerging markets issues.
Our service includes:

Editorial advice

Localised editorial piece when needed

Distribution to the major print, broadcast and online publications along with industry-specific publications

Follow-up calls to secure interview request

Guaranteed distribution to

Distribution to Bloomberg, LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters

Social Media Reach: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram

Full online monitoring and print monitoring when available. Includesreadership stats and Advertising Value Equivalent

Translation in French, Arabic and Portuguese available