Vishnu Padayachee, a true Renaissance man

Lifelong friend and former colleague Rajend Mesthrie pays tribute to the economist, scholar and co-founder of Ike’s Books in Durban.

Mahavishnu Padayachee died of complications related to an earlier heart attack and renal failure on the morning of Saturday 29 May. That day, South Africa lost one of its finest – and most loved – economists.

It also lost one of its finest all-round scholars, someone entirely at home with history, politics, literature, the fine arts, sports in a popular as well as academic sense, and Western, African and Indian cultures and their merged forms in South Africa. Padayachee’s academic life was intimately tied up with the University of Durban-Westville, the University of Natal and their later merger into the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

At the time of his death, he was the Derek Schrier and Cecily Cameron distinguished professor in development economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. No doubt economists will be commemorating his scholarly and activist contributions to their field in the months and years ahead. But I wish to focus on a personal tribute and résumé of his early life and early years in economics, which I was privileged to share, in the hope that future scholarship will be able to make some meaningful links.  

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Vishnu, as he was known to all, was born in Umkomaas on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal on 31 May 1952. His roots were very much in the indentureship that brought Indians to the colony of Natal from 1860. By the time Vishnu was born – the only child of RN and M Padayachee – the family had branched off in several directions. 

His grandfather was appalled by the poverty he had witnessed on his first visit to India and renounced the material world for charitable works, becoming one of the founding figures of the Divine Life Society of KwaZulu-Natal, an organisation dedicated to religion and tangible, large-scale charitable work. Father Padayachee was what he was called reverentially outside the Indian community. 

Vishnu’s father inherited some of this ethos: he was a dedicated vegetarian and part-time voluntary social worker when not engaged with his duties as a primary school teacher and later principal. His mother, in the fashion of the times, was a full-time housewife and keeper of the religious Hindu tradition. 

Vishnu’s paternal uncles, who lived next door, went into the commercial sphere. They were in the employ of their relatives by marriage, the Naidoo family, who were the leading entrepreneurs in an otherwise largely impoverished area of Umkomaas that had been set aside for Indian occupation in the post-plantation era. Vishnu imbibed all of this as a child. He was, according to his mother, fluent in Tamil till the age of six and only started speaking English at home when he began primary school. 

Popular student

Vishnu’s schooling was entirely at the Naidoo Memorial School (named after one of its early patrons, RC Naidoo, who was a family relative). This primary school incorporated a high school by 1966, with Vishnu in its second cohort of those starting in grade 9 in 1967, then referred to as standard seven. It was a modest school, with moderate facilities and some teachers still finding their way. But with a schoolteacher as a father and a doting mother, Vishnu read widely at home, laying the basis for his enormous general knowledge and his adroit and articulate command of English. The school, in comparison, hardly had a library. It was – in my recollection – a shared quarters with a kitchen that held a modicum of not overinspiring books. 

When I joined in 1968, Vishnu was two years ahead of me and soon to be head prefect of the school.  He was something of a golden boy, involved in activities like school plays and debates but also a first-class goalkeeper at soccer. He played the role of the Jester in Twelfth Night, which included the singing of “Oh Mistress Mine, where are you roaming?”. He was – in my retrospective judgement – the only student at this rural school with the lightness of touch to pull off this role (and song). 

Vishnu would act as referee if a teacher were unavailable for important football matches and even as coach when students occasionally played the teachers. He was an immensely popular student and prefect, yet retained a common touch. 

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He entered university at Salisbury Island in 1970. It was then the University College for South Africans of South Asian descent, with exams carrying the rubber stamp of the University of South Africa. Students of that era speak joyously of the daily boat trips to the military island-turned-campus, though at least one student drowned on his journey to classes. Vishnu transferred with the rest to the new University of Durban-Westville in 1972, continuing into third year on a comprehensive four-year B Comm degree and going on to take honours in economics over two full years, while being a pioneering graduate assistant. 

In these six years, the classical foundations of his subject and its intertwined connections were laid. Vishnu obtained distinctions in several subjects, including the economics major and entire honours degree. While still in his final undergraduate year, he was earmarked for and then carefully managed through graduate studies by the department with an eye to an eventual lectureship. 

Lecturers of the time had mainly an Afrikaans background, with varying but mostly sound reputations. Vishnu always spoke appreciatively of the Fouries, Fouchés, Fölschers, Spieses and Torrs who taught him, even after he took a turn away from the then mainstream approaches to the subject. I think Carel Fölscher and Chris Torr were the most influential among them for Vishnu’s career in developmental economics, with Torr particularly laying the basis for a left-leaning, post-Keynesian economics. But he always regarded L Fourie as a special mentor of that period. 

Vishnu was one of the youngest lecturers on the campus by 1976. He was a gifted orator and analyst, casting a spell on those who took their studies seriously. One student was heard to remark that listening to Mr Padayachee’s lectures on economics was like hearing Carl Sagan talking about the universe. (I had to persuade Vishnu that this was a tremendous compliment, even though the student – who had merely wanted to pass his exams – did not apparently intend it that way.) Several of those students have become academic leaders and administrators in their own right, and remained in touch with Vishnu as their intellectual inspiration.  

Sociable and ethical

Quite early in his academic career, Vishnu decided to go full-time into research by joining the Institute for Socio-Economic Research at the University of Durban-Westville, headed by Trevor Bell, who was an important early influence. Vishnu became very active in the Academic Staff Association in its early and complicated years of the post-1976 era. 

He was immensely popular among his colleagues for his sociability (which included playing bridge or table tennis at lunch breaks) and as someone well informed on all matters. A true Renaissance man, who – to my amazement – was even consulted as a free amateur architect by academics building their houses on state loans; yet also steeped in his speciality of economic theory and development economics. 

Politics in the 1980s was inescapable and increasingly volatile. By that time, Vishnu had become influenced by left-wing intellectuals, writers and the trade unionists of Durban, and was immersed in activities that took him beyond his academic training. In turn, the activists learnt considerably from his rigour, eloquence and knowledge of his field. 

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Vishnu first read Marx in a small way in his honours year in 1974, as I recall from a lecture he gave to me while he was driving us back to Umkomaas from campus! My impression is that he was neither persuaded nor dissuaded from the arguments at that time. A great influence on Vishnu who nudged him into more critical and activist directions by the early to mid-1980s was Enver Motala, known for his educational work with trades unions.

Vishnu played an important role in the transformation of the University of Durban-Westville around that time as special assistant to the new rector, Jairam Reddy, essentially the first post-apartheid leader of the university. (Possibly the youngest special adviser of the era.) 

He subsequently completed his PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal under Bill Freund – another friend and major influence – becoming a highly respected researcher, lecturer, administrator and head of the school of development studies at Howard College. 

Colleagues who worked with and under him speak of the immensely difficult times of political and administrative turmoil, and the ultimate destruction – there can be no other word – of the research and scholarly ethos of the school. In his time as head, Vishnu’s ethical background as a young man and the University of Durban-Westville experience as special adviser came to the fore. 

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Former colleagues speak highly of him: “Vishnu was the most wonderful head of school. Completely on the ball, efficient, fair, far-sighted and astute,” said Dorrit Posel, now head of the school of economics and finance at Wits University. He was an “entirely decent boss, a person of real integrity … committed to doing the largely invisible day-to-day work required to sustain and build institutions,” said Richard Pithouse. 

Students of the time are no less appreciative. “Vishnu and many others have had a hugely important influence on us younger economists and activists … becoming mentor-friends,” said Seeraj Mohamed. “A lifetime friendship, which many of us supervised by Vishnu are blessed with,” said Lumkile Mondi. 

Ike’s Books

Vishnu’s standing internationally is considerable. He was made a fellow of Johns Hopkins University, an outstanding recognition that is not handed out lightly by an institution now world famous for its Covid-19 research. In democratic South Africa, Vishnu was on the board of directors of the Reserve Bank, as part of a think-tank advising governor Tito Mboweni. The current issue of Transformation carries a piece co-authored with Jannie Rossouw – also on the board at the time – on the important topic of the need for central bank autonomy. 

At the time of his death, Vishnu held a distinguished professorship in development economics at the Wits school of economics and finance. His outstanding 2019 book with Robbie van Niekerk, Shadow of Liberation, deals with the political complexities of recent South African economic policy, with typical in-depth research, insight, good writing and the speaking of academic truth to power.   

In the end, it is the more human side of Vishnu that will be most remembered and missed by his friends and students, the Renaissance man who took time off to build and run one of the best used-book shops in the province. Ike’s Bookstore, which was the brainchild of Vishnu and Ike Mayet, is widely known for the quality and range of its rare and collectible books, and its literary and political holdings. 

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It started in a small building near Vishnu’s flat in Chapel Street, Overport, with unpromising commercial beginnings; neighbours would sometimes come in and ask if they could borrow a book. Relocated to Greyville, Ike’s became a gathering place for writers and activists, and their book launches and lunches. Even cricketer Rahul Dravid came in search of good books, no doubt after an arduous Test match. Blacks in Whites, an erudite book about cricket and politics in the province, of which Vishnu was a co-author, was partly composed on the balcony of the bookstore and reflects Vishnu’s lifelong love and knowledge of the game. 

JM Coetzee formally relaunched the bookstore, he who had previously declined to travel to London to pick up his second Booker Prize. Lewis Nkosi and Arundhuti Roy were sparkling visitors. The list is long… I learnt about book dealing from Vishnu, who taught me to judge a book by its cover (or at least to assess its resale value thereby). Economists… 

Should we put the roots of his acute awareness of the materiality of good books down to the bare library annexed to a kitchen at high school? 

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In fact, Vishnu’s love for his hometown of Umkomaas never dissipated, and later in his career he undertook painstaking yet elegant research on its people and places: especially the Saiccor factory close to his childhood home yet entirely closed to people like him until recently, and the town’s large community of South Africans of Italian descent and their roots and economic contributions. Nor did he forget his family and cousins there, to whom he was close all his life (as an only child).  

Vishnu leaves behind his ageing mother, wife Nishi and beloved daughter Sonali. We all feel and share their immense loss.

Rajend Mesthrie taught in the English department of the University of Durban-Westville from 1979 to 1986, and subsequently in linguistics at the University of Cape Town, where he holds a research chair and emeritus professorship.

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