Honorary degree recipient Thandika Mkandawire tells grads to speak truth to power

Thandika Mkandawire
Thandika Mkandawire

Of the good values acquired in life, a commitment to social justice will be among the most prized.

Thandika Mkandawire with York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton
Thandika Mkandawire with York University President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

This was the message delivered by honorary doctor of laws recipient Thandika Mkandawire during his convocation address on Oct. 13 to graduands of York University’s Glendon Campus.

Mkandawire is a professor, a noted economist and a public intellectual who has published broadly on the social sciences. He is an expert and scholar on policy-making, transformation and democratization in Africa.

He shared his own story of his first impressions of Canada. After learning about ice hockey in his Nigerian high school run by Canadian Marist Brothers, he was left with the feeling that Canadians must be tenacious to participate in such a sport. After arriving in Canada, he remembers a time in 1963 that triggered a second opinion that Canadians are compassionate. That day, he and his friends were randomly stopped by Canadian strangers who offered condolences to them following the death of four young Black girls at the hands of white supremacist terrorists in Birmingham, Ala.

In a world of social injustices created by human choice and human action, the power to make change also comes from human choice and human action, he said.

“Indeed at this university you have all been provided with some tools that are essential for changing the course of history. I do hope sincerely you will use them,” he said.

Social justice does not take place in isolation, he said, and can be an instrument for social change. Knowledge is vital in the fight for justice, and the knowledge and sense of social responsibility qualify you to be on the frontline in the struggle against social injustice, he said.

Thandika Mkandawire
Thandika Mkandawire

“You cannot justify your inaction or indifference by claiming you did not know,” he said. “In your case, ‘ignorance is no excuse’ is even more binding. Your years here have prepared you to access and interpret the vast amount of information at your disposal. You should be able to distinguish between self-defence and a gratuitous recourse to violence, between the judicious use of resources for human well-being and the wanton destruction of the environment, between a celebration of human diversity and the building of a system of national, global apartheid, between the will to better oneself and the craving for domination.”

Moving forward, the decisions made will be subject to the “law of unintended consequences” and may result in felicitous outcomes, or more negative ones. Resist the temptation, he advised, to only take credit for the felicitous outcomes and deny responsibility for the negative ones.

“Such selective assumption of responsibility is a cowardly one and accounts for the persistence of many social ills. Own up to your errors and move forward, strengthened by the lessons learned from your experience.”

Mkandawire shared that to prepare for this speech, his first convocation address, he listened to several other speeches before writing his own. He realized many give advice that may sound trivial, but despite the simplicity of platitudes such as “listen to your inner voice,” “be true to yourself” and “speak truth to power,” they do in fact convey important messages.

“So, listen to your inner voice, be true to yourself and speak truth to power,” he said.