Professor Vishnu Padayachee profile 600x300px 1

The news about the passing away of Prof. Vishnu Padayachee on 29 May 2021 came as an immense shock to myself and much of the progressive political and scholarly community who had known him or had been influenced by his thinking and humanity.

I have known Vishnu since the 1980s when we were both active in left-wing academic and activist circles in KwaZulu-Natal.

He was based at the former University of Durban-Westville, which he first joined as an economics student in the early 1970s. He became an academic there in 1977.

He then completed PhD training in Economics at the former University of Natal in 1989 and set out to build a formidable and consistently progressive intellectual career spanning many decades.

He also enjoyed various stints in Norway, at Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and Johns Hopkins in the US, and worked on major international academic and economic policy projects.

Vishnu authored at least 10 books, over 40 book chapters, 10 book reviews, and over 100 journal articles.

Vishnu distinguished himself over many decades as a radical economist, in his critiques of the apartheid political economy and its complex links to the global capitalist order, and in his rigorous arguments for deep and far-reaching socio-economic transformation.

I came to know about his works during the struggle against apartheid, specifically in the vigorous debates within left-wing circles about the most satisfactory way to characterise the apartheid-capitalism nexus, the nature of state power and dominance, the forms of struggle required to overturn such dominance, and transitions and transformations entailed in the democratic project, including transitions to a new post-apartheid political economy.

I fondly remember the role Vishnu and others played in setting up and managing the Transformation journal in 1986, which provided such a vibrant and engaging radical intellectual platform for the left in the 1980s and 1990s.

Transformation featured crucial debates that had direct pertinence to the practical struggles conducted by the mass democratic and labour movement at the time, not least their strategic and tactical decisions in opposition to the crisis-ridden apartheid state. This included, for example, debates about trade unions and democratic politics, role of the independent labour movement in mass democratic struggles, the Cosatu-UDF alliance, the national question, the education crisis, and international trade union solidarity struggles in isolating the apartheid regime and apartheid economy.

The leftwing intellectual traditions prompted by the contributions of Vishnu and other thinkers such as Bill Freund, Ari Sitas, Neville Alexander, Jeremy Cronin, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Colin Bundy and many others have left a repository of seminal ideas about not just the promise of, but also feasible alternatives to, the obscenely unequal system of economic and political power that has dominated much of humanity to this day.

Prof. Padayachee left behind many generations of students trained in heterodox thinking about anti-capitalist alternatives to inform our economic and social policy choices.

I hope they will help to develop further progressive perspectives on how the radical democratic project should navigate new policy challenges, including, for example, the impact on labour of new forms of technological transformation (e.g. the 4th industrial revolution), as well as the ecological destruction and climate change driven principally by dominant patterns of global capitalist accumulation.

Like many of us, Vishnu felt deeply betrayed by the failure of the immediate post-1994 democratic government to push through radical reforms in South Africa's macro-economic policy framework and its retreat into neoliberal economic thinking.

He and many others worked incredibly hard to write up voluminous and rigorous research work covering a vast range of economic policy areas that formed the basis of the ANC's Macro-Economic Research Group (MERG) policy document.

The MERG group document was a tour de force, at the time proposing radical policy reforms which, if implemented, we hoped would help to break the structural barriers to democratic economic transformation that today still hobble a distribution-led democratic economic growth path. His critique of our failure to tackle these structural design problems at the heart of our economy is as seminal today as it was in the early 1990s.

I hope that Vishnu at least felt vindicated at the recent historical record bearing witness to the spectacular failure of the neoliberal economic experiment in offering a stable and inclusive basis for global humanity – instead, delivering an inheritance marked by rampant and growing levels of joblessness, obscene levels of social inequality, major ecological destruction, rampant climate change and erosion of the biophysical conditions providing life on our planet.

Yet he would also be deeply saddened by the devastating social costs visited by this system on, especially, the most vulnerable and marginalised, the working and work-less people of the earth.

It is hoped that we can all rise up against this world order to fight for and secure the truly radical democratic alternative that Comrade Vishnu worked towards for much of his life.

Finally, I wish to extend my deepest sympathies to his family, friends and colleagues, in the knowledge that his legacy will continue to shine a light for generations to come.

Hamba kahle, Comrade Vishnu.

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Issued by:

Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation

DST Building (53), CSIR Campus

Meiring Naude Road

Brummeria

Pretoria

Enquiries: Ishmael Mnisi 0660378859