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Kate Meagher

October 12th, 2023

Remembering Thandika Mkandawire 2023: Musical Reflections on African Development


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Kate Meagher

October 12th, 2023

Remembering Thandika Mkandawire 2023: Musical Reflections on African Development


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Each year since the passing of the LSE’s first Chair of African Development, Prof. Thandika Mkandawire, the Department of International Development has commemorated his life near the time of his birthday, 10 October, in order to bring his work to the attention of another intake of International Development students. Here, ID colleague Kate Meagher uses music as a lens to reflect on the intersection of Thandika’s life with issues of African development and the many ways of decolonizing development thinking.

Click through to Thandika’s ID Memorial Page for Special Issues and Tributes as well as a full bibliography of his work.


Prof. Thandika Mkandawire, the late Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics, and esteemed colleague and teacher at the LSE Department of International Development, has inspired generations of scholars, students and policy-makers with his rigorous and innovative approach to African development.  Although Thandika passed away on 27 March 2020, he has remained a part of ID in our lectures, our reading lists, our African Development course, and the dissertations and articles written by many of our staff and students.  Each year since Thandika’s passing, we have commemorated his life near the time of his birthday, 10 October, in order to bring his illuminating work to the attention of another intake of International Development students.

Why do we think it’s so important for students to know about the research of Thandika Mkandawire?  Thandika’s incisive approach to development economics cuts through the ‘failures of collective imagination’ that plague mainstream economics and associated development policy, amid recurring financial crises, mounting global inequality, concerns about the sustainability of contemporary models of growth, and an overly narrow approach to the discipline. In the words of a CODESRIA colleague during the 70th birthday celebration of Thandika’s life and work in Malawi:

‘…one of the most important contributions of Thandika to the study of Africa is the way in which he effortlessly weaves history, political economy, philosophy, quantitative methods, and a keen awareness of public policy dilemmas together in his approach to the study of Africa. In this regard, Thandika is one of the most imaginative scholars on Africa, contributing across methodologies and disciplines, yet retaining a strong policy relevance.’ (Mustapha 2016:21).

Central to Thandika’s innovative approach to development is his complex experience of development processes.  Born in Zimbabwe and raised in Zambia and Malawi during the colonial era, Thandika experienced forced removals, township life, the colour bar, engagement in Malawi’s independence struggles through radical journalism and student protests, and imprisonment, all before the age of 21.  In his adult life, Thandika engaged with African development as a journalist, a refugee, a critical scholar and an institution builder.  He was a founding member of development research organizations in Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS, 1983-86) and in Senegal (CODESRIA, 1986-96), and Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva (UNRISD, 1998-2009), before bringing his accumulated knowledge to the LSE in 2010 as the first Chair in African Development.  He has produced iconic articles on African developmental states, the perils of rock-star economists, the strengths of institutional diversity, and the role of colonial legacies in tax performance.  Thandika had a flare for bringing African realities alive in seminars, lectures and in his writing, challenging conventional development thinking about Africa.

In the same spirit, this blog presents some reflections on African development through the lens of music from Thandika’s life, played at the memorial held for him last year at the LSE after COVID-19 restriction were lifted.  You are  invited to listen to the seven pieces of music below, and to read the reflections on how they link Thandika’s life to wider issues of African development and African approaches to modernity.  We hope they inspire you to read some of Thandika’s work and to bring more imaginative theoretical, methodological and policy perspectives into the way you think about African development and development economics.


Blues for a Hip King, Abdullah Ibrahim (South Africa)

All who knew Thandika will remember his wit and love of life, and his predilection for mixing intellectual debate with live music. He spent many a night discussing politics and development issues into the small wee hours in clubs featuring contemporary and upcoming African musicians.  His love of music as the score of grounded social change went way back.  As a young man in 1950s Malawi, Thandika had his own band. The music they played was influenced by South African and American jazz, which they picked up on the radio. Thandika played the guitar and sang.  Along with South African jazz and Kwela music, Thandika drew inspiration from big bands and jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.  This was at the time when South African jazz was bursting on the global scene, mixing jazz improv with township urban dance music to create an innovative and exciting new sound.  For Thandika, African music was not something stuck in the past, but a living feature of social and political engagement.  In later life, Thandika was particularly fond of Abdullah Ibrahim, previously known as Dollar Brand, who was a pioneer of South African jazz. Thandika saw him perform in many places all over the world. The last time was in 2015, when as a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town, he had the opportunity to see Abdullah Ibrahim at an amazing outdoor solo concert in Cape Town.


Nkhujipeleka (I offer myself), Wambali Mkandawire (Malawi)

Although Thandika was a jazz lover at heart, he had a soft spot for Southern African gospel music.  He was particularly fond of the music of the late Wambali Mkandawire, who was not a relative, but came from the same part of Malawi as Thandika’s family.  While it may seem unusual in the UK, Mkandawire is not an uncommon name in their part of northern Malawi.  Wambali Mkandawire started out as a jazz singer and activist, but his musical energies moved increasingly toward Southern African variants of gospel singing.  He won the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) Award for Creativity for his 2002 album Zani Muwone.  A political commitment to singing in Tumbuka, the language of his and Thandika’s home area, gave his music a particular poignance for Thandika.


Stimela (Steam Train), Hugh Masakela (South Africa)

‘Stimela’ is an iconic piece of African jazz and a social commentary on the South African migrant labour system.  The performer, the late great Hugh Masakela, was a founding figure in the history of South African jazz, playing in the pioneering band the Jazz Epistles with Abdullah Ibrahim in the late 1950s.  South African jazz played a deeply political role in the early anti-apartheid struggles, symbolizing modern urban African aspiration and creative engagement across racial divides.   But ‘Stimela’ also has a direct connection to Thandika and the LSE.  In 2014, Thandika invited Hugh Masekela to speak in the LSE’s Africa Talks series at an event entitled ‘Art and Activism: reflections on the anti-apartheid struggle and 2 decades of South African democracy’. To everyone’s delight, Hugh Masekela pulled out his trumpet and played Stimela before proceeding to talk about the struggles against the migrant labour system.


Visa från Utanmyra (Song from Utanmyra), Jan Johansson (Sweden)

This piece is a jazz interpretation of a Swedish folk song played by a well-known Swedish jazz pianist, fusing Thandika’s love of jazz with his deep personal and intellectual ties with Sweden.  When Thandika’s Malawian passport was revoked in 1965 by President Kamusu Banda, stranding him in Ecuador, it was Sweden that granted him asylum.  He later became a Swedish citizen, set down family roots, and it was in Sweden that he spent his final days.  But Sweden also played a central role in Thandika’s innovative theorizing about late development.  His pioneering work on Transformative Social Policy drew on the Scandinavian use of universal social benefits as a mechanism for creating investible resource pools and national cohesion to facilitate rapid development catch-up among the Scandinavian late late developers.  Thandika felt the Scandinavian use of social policy as an engine of development constituted a more effective model for African late late late developers to find their way out of the stultifying grip of neo-liberal development models.


Birima, Youssou N’Dour (Senegal)

Birima, sung by the renowned Senegalese artist, Youssou N’dour, is a praise song about leadership, collective struggle and the social role of shared celebration.  Youssou N’dour had roots in the traditional griot or praise singing caste in Senegal, but played a prominent role in the development of the popular musical form, mbalax, which fuses traditional Senegalese sound with Cuban and other contemporary influences.   Thandika actually knew Youssou N’Dour back in the 1980s when he was playing in small local clubs in lowbrow parts of Dakar, and met him many times since.  He was an enthusiastic supporter of N’Dour’s socially relevant and globally successful music.  This piece not only speaks to Thandika’s love of contemporary African music, but also to his strong bond with Senegal and lasting commitment the primo African social science research institute, CODESRIA, based in Dakar.  This song also speaks to Thandika’s belief in the importance of the state and the struggle for good leadership.  Although he lived most of his life as an exile from his home state of Malawi, Thandika insisted on the importance of African states to any viable development project.  He documented the developmental capacities of African states, and emphasized the need to move beyond neo-liberal ‘choiceless democracies’ to give African states and societies the policy space to address their development challenges in line with their own needs and aspirations.


Amabutho (Warriors), The Joy (South Africa)

Thandika had a deep commitment to African youth, whom he saw as the source of creative energy and new perspectives for thinking through Africa’s problems. This piece is sung by a group of South African teenagers from a depressed township in KwaZulu-Natal who came together in the context of a local singing competition at their secondary school. The beautiful acapella harmonies are part of a musical style known as isicathamiya, a type of choral singing developed in urban areas by migrant Zulu communities.  It emerged from mixing an older more forceful style of Zulu choral singing called mbube with gospel music to create a softer blend of voices.  The Joy adds a new layer to the dynamic character of this Zulu musical form by bringing in a twist of soul.  This song, Amabutho, is about a father telling his son that when someone falls in battle, his spirit must be brought back by warriors.   The song resonates with Thandika’s call to African youth and young development scholars everywhere to combine a deeper knowledge of historical and contemporary realities with an openness to new ideas in order to push past traditionalist stereotypes and narrow policy thinking toward a more just and vibrant re-imagining of development.

The Joy have gone on to catch global attention by posting neighbourhood choral jamming sessions on Instagram and TikTok, and ended up performing at Glastonbury this past summer.

The Joy at Glastonbury 2023: 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Kate Meagher

Dr Kate Meagher, is a Professor in Development Studies at LSE. Her research focuses on the changing character of the informal economy in contemporary Africa, and the implications of economic informalization for development, democratization and globalization.

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