Opinionista Imraan Buccus 6 June 2021

Tribute to Vishnu Padayachee, a world-class scholar, economist and bookshop owner

Vishnu Padayachee, the world-renowned scholar who died last week, was a major figure in the intellectual life of Durban and South Africa. There has been an outpouring of public expressions of grief since his passing.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Vishnu Padayachee was a world-class scholar who worked across a number of disciplines, including history, but is best known for his contribution to economics. He is remembered for his leading role in the Macro-Economic Research Group (Merg) that developed Keynesian proposals for the ANC for a post-apartheid SA. The Merg proposals, which won wide acclaim from leading economists around the world, were suddenly dumped by the ANC in 1993, following intense lobbying by domestic and international capital and institutions like the World Bank.

The ANC, moving rapidly to the right on economic questions, adopted the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) in 1994. Two years later it made a turn to neoliberalism with the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) strategy. Countries in Latin America made huge social progress under left-wing governments, but we still have massive inequality and vast swathes of poverty. The work of Padayachee and his colleagues is now remembered as the road not taken.

But Padayachee was not just a brilliant progressive economist. Messages on social media have provided eloquent testimony to his charisma, dedication and care as a teacher. Many stress that he was a highly principled man, a virtue that is enormously attractive in this time of endemic corruption. He is also remembered for the generosity with which he welcomed people into academic life in Durban, and his warm and open-hearted collegiality. In the often petty and sometimes vicious world of academia he is widely remembered as a kind and honest man who kept his eyes on the larger prize – making the university as good as it could be.

But, for people outside of the academy, and removed from the somewhat arcane debates about lost economic possibilities, Padayachee will probably be best remembered for his great love for books and ideas, and for Ike’s, the famous bookshop that he established in Durban.

The shop was named in honour of the original Ike’s, a bookstore owned by Joseph Daniel “Ike” Mayet in Overport in 1988. The original Ike’s was patronised by the city’s black intelligentsia and artists, and sold banned literature under the counter. The new Ike’s, opened in Florida Road by JM Coetzee in 2001, carried an impressive selection of Africana and radical books, as well as maps, pamphlets, photographs and the like. It was, as has been widely noted, a beautiful space. Many people came to consider it the most important bookshop in SA. It developed a significant international reputation.

The early 2000s were an exciting time in the intellectual life of Durban, with new ideas emerging, international connections blossoming and the Centre for Creative Arts at the university pulling off extraordinary film, poetry and literary festivals under the auspices of preciously brilliant young intellectuals like Nashen Moodley and Pravasan Pillay. Ike’s was an important part of the intellectual excitement and vibrancy of this time.

Visiting writers, academics and activists would always head to the shop and the book launches there became important intellectual events. Padayachee was always a gracious host and there was a sense that, although the ANC had failed badly, there were new possibilities developing within society. In retrospect it was a time of optimism.

That optimism was soon crushed. The intellectual life of the city was badly damaged by the authoritarianism that wreaked such havoc at the university. The damage was compounded as institutions were captured by the anti-intellectualism and chauvinism of the Zuma period. Many of the brightest young intellectuals left the city. Some, like Pillay and Moodley, moved abroad.

Padayachee made a hugely important contribution to Durban. It’s now up to those of us who value books and ideas to pick up the baton and find new ways to ensure that the intellectual life of the city can flourish. DM168 

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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