Thandika Mkandawire: A Personal Tribute to an Icon of Social Science

Thandika Mkandawire: A Personal Tribute to an Icon of Social Science

Said Adejumobi. Photo credit to Dagan Rossini.

Said Adejumobi. Photo credit to Dagan Rossini.

The following is a tribute to Professor Thandika Mkandawire, a member of the Social Science Research Council's (SSRC) Board of Directors, written by Professor Said Adejumobi.1 This piece was presented during the colloquium on “Thinking African, Epistemological Issues: Celebrating the Life and Work of Thandika Mkandawire,” organized by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), in collaboration with the University of Malawi and the Archie Mafeje Research Institute at the University of South Africa (UNISA). The event was held April 11–13, 2016, in Malawi.


(Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by CODESRIA, available for download here. A slightly edited version has been reproduced on Kujenga with the author’s permission.)

From humble beginnings in Malawi, Thandika Mkandawire has risen to become one of the best thinkers in African—and indeed global—social science scholarship. He represents the broadest and deepest possibilities of knowledge, the gains of rigor and perseverance, the endurance of the human spirit, and the triumph of excellence, originality, and creativity. Thandika is a pan-African scholar par excellence.

I first met Thandika about twenty-one years ago when he was executive secretary of CODESRIA. Since then, both on and off the field of scholarship, Thandika has remained a mentor, big brother, friend, comrade, and colleague. With infectious simplicity, he breaks generational boundaries, connects with people of different disciplines, creeds, and walks of life, and listens attentively to others and their ideas even if he disagrees with them vehemently. For him, scholarship is not about empty noises or rhetoric, but innovative ideas. Ideas constitute the very foundation of human progress and social transformation, which he cherishes with passion and commitment.

Thandika has many sides to his personality. He is a remarkable institution builder; a knowledge worker and organic intellectual; a political activist relying on the power of ideas; a mentor to many generations of African scholars including myself; a committed pan-Africanist; an active social being; and now, a caring grandfather. Thandika works very hard but does not shy away from playing hard, too. He is well rounded, makes the best use of his time, and lives life to the fullest.

Achie Mafeje and Thandika Mkandawire are two African intellectuals who have had profound impact on my scholarship, yet they both differ in their personality and outlook. While Mafeje carries the aura of an accomplished scholar who cannot stomach either intellectual laziness or ignorance, Thandika is a soft and extremely accommodating scholar who demonstrates temerity in his work and true empathy. Both, however, represent some of the best traditions of generations of social science knowledge and scholarship in Africa.

A major lesson I have learned from Thandika is that knowledge and scholarship are not neutral social values. Rather, they are sites of political contestations and social and ideological constructions of society and class configurations of interests, no matter the claim to objectivity that social research espouses. Whether it be the genealogy of Africa's political economy, an interdisciplinary approach to social science, the deconstruction of Africa's economic crisis and proffered solutions, the analysis of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP), the post-Adjustment era and the current discourse about “Africa rising,” or inspiring younger African scholars, Thandika demonstrates an unusual capacity to think differently, offer counter-arguments, and create new narratives. He is an intellectual giant whose ideas, views, and perspectives reverberate globally and remains highly respected in the knowledge and policy communities within Africa and across the world.

Thandika has paid his dues. He has played a leadership role in the development of social science research in Africa and continues to do so. We are proud of him, and so is Africa. We pray for good health, happiness, and God’s guidance for him as we celebrate this exceptional scholar and a rare gift to our continent and to the world. God bless Thandika.

  1. Said Adejumobi is the director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa's (UNECA) sub-regional office for southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.
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