Professor Thandika Mkandawire: A tribute from a friend and colleague

Professor Thandika Mkandawire. Picture: Nigel Stead
Professor Thandika Mkandawire. Picture: Nigel Stead

On March 27 2020, I lost a friend and mentor, and Africa lost one of its leading development economists, Professor Thandika Mkandawire, who passed away in Stockholm, Sweden.

Mkandawire was a great human being, compassionate, humorous and a brilliant economist. He was at ease with both quantitative and qualitative research methods and was theoretical grounded.

Mkandawire was witty as he was brilliant. Whenever he arrived in South Africa, he would call: “Omano where are you? I have just arrived in Pretoria [or Johannesburg].”

I would then meet up with him in the evenings and the conversations would begin – about Africa’s development and the global economy.

Mkandawire was a pan-Africanist to the core and a world-class academic. He was feared and respected by Western scholars who worked on Africa because he debunked their analyses about the continent’s development challenges.

According to him, these Western scholars’ analyses were not scientific but based on their “aprioristic disposition”.

He used one example to demonstrate that: the concept of neopatrimonialism. He observed that Western scholars say African economies were not growing, yet at the time six of the 13 fastest-growing economies in the world were on the continent. Mkandawire then posed the question, how can one variable explain two different development outcomes?

He was one of the few African scholars that specialised in the developmental state as a theory of development. I learnt a lot from him on this subject. And we exchanged a lot of ideas on it. His work on the subject stands out.

Mkandawire was instrumental in the formulation of progressive policies in various African countries. I can confidently say that the work we did together, as I worked at the Human Science Research Council, influenced the government under president Thabo Mbeki to adopt a developmental state as its policy agenda. Unfortunately, this agenda that was derailed by the administration of former president Jacob Zuma.

I invited him to make representations to the Mbeki presidency as well as other top government officials. His insightful chapter in the book Constructing a Democratic Developmental State in SA: Potentials and Challenges, which I edited, speaks for itself.

One of the central points of Mkandawire chapter was that economic policy must be anchored on transformative social policy.

As he rightly argued, the main driver and ultimate goal of development is the investment in people. Human capital development is thus one of the economic fundamentals.

The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has bone him out. The neglect of human capital investment has upended the global economy and has demystified orthodoxy economists.

More important was his human side. My goodness, whenever we met on the continent, in Europe or in Asia, we ensured that we combined the academic, policy work with the social side of things. He enjoyed his beer and a good meal. You could never be bored in his company because of his versatility on issues.

I need to share this because it is important for young Africans, especially young black South Africans, to learn from this man.

Mkandawire was interviewed for the position of vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT). In a myopic way, one of the panellists asked him how he would maintain standards of the UCT.

His response was that if appointed, his role was not going to be that of maintaining standards but to improve them. Though he did not get the job, in subsequent years, the UCT persuaded him to join it, where he worked for some years.

Mkandawire will sorely be missed by the African scholarly community. Thank you Mkandawire for all you did for me. You fought a good fight and “you died empty” – after giving it your all.

My condolences to his wife, Karina, sons and grand kids.

* Omano Edigheji was research director at the Human Science Research Council and chief technical adviser at the Public Service Commission

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