Development-driven, Iconoclastic, Witty and Informal: Thinking About Thandika Mkandawire (1940-2020)

January 24th, 2023

By Yusuf Bangura and Nyon, Switzerland (Bangura.ym(at) April, 2020

The news of Thandika’s passing on 27 March came as a big shock, even though I knew he was unwell in the last few years. His casual but forceful personality and unbounded energy made me believe that the laws of nature might not easily apply to him. He always seemed to bounce back from adversity with renewed vigour and focus.

He survived two cancers in 2004 and 2009 when he was at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), but continued to work diligently, giving inspiring lectures around the world, writing brilliant academic papers, and generating insightful and provocative ideas. Always sharp, witty and booming with insights, I felt he would survive the third attack, which, sadly, turned out to be fatal.

Even when, a year ago, he was undergoing a difficult treatment for his illness, he wanted us to co-organise a Summer Institute Programme at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) on the transfer of power in Africa’s fledgling democracies.

Thinking seriously and passionately about development, especially as it relates to Africa, was the defining feature of Thandika’s scholarship. He was the quintessential iconoclast–restless, uncompromising and acting like a laser beam when discussing development and challenging conventional ideas.

For Thandika, dealing with development was like being confronted with ‘the fierce urgency of now’, to borrow one of Martin Luther King’s famous expressions; or, as Thandika himself expressed it, drawing on the late Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s insight on the subject, Africans ‘must run, while others walk’. It is difficult to think of a scholar who is as driven as Thandika was on the imperative of promoting development in Africa. He was never tired of urging likeminded friends and colleagues not to relent on the development project and to combat dominant, but dodgy frameworks and perspectives.

Thandika was solidly rooted in African research and social networks and had numerous friends around the world, as well as a healthy and critical global outlook. He was a voracious reader; had the rare gift of thinking quickly and clearly on his feet; kept a huge library, a part of which he carried around in a USB stick; and had an amazing ability to frame issues in refreshing ways.

Because of his pioneering work in developing social science research in Africa during his leadership of CODESRIA, he became a household name in research communities in virtually all African countries. Young scholars saw him as their mentor. One beneficiary of his research capacity building programme at CODESRIA, the Nigerian political scientist, Jibrin Ibrahim, recently coined the term ‘CODESRIA Brought Ups’ to describe those who were initiated into the world of cross-national research at CODESRIA.

Click here for downloading the full tribute to Thandika Mkandawire.

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