I no longer recall when exactly I met Sam. Maybe it was in the late 70s at CODESRIA, or in the early 80s at the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies. The late 1990s, though, was the time we truly got to work together, closely and intensely. The two of us were at the helm of CODESRIA’s leadership, as President and Vice President. The next two years were a time of deep and sharp differences in policy, and it often seemed as if there was no end in sight.
I remember a particularly difficult episode a year down the line. We had an emergency meeting in Dakar but Sam said he could not be there because he was to have a delicate operation in a few days. I explained what was at stake and asked if he could postpone the operation by a week. He warned me that he would not be able to sit for long in his current state. But the next day, he was in Dakar. During the meeting, he kept on shifting the weight of his body from one side to the other, now leaning on one buttock, then on another. He was obviously in great pain, but it never showed on his smiling face.
That was Sam, selfless, committed to a fault, totally reliable. He was the person you would want by your side if you expected hard times ahead. But no matter how difficult the times, as during those years, I never saw him turn vindictive against anyone. Later, we would look back on that period as something of a crossroads in the history of CODESRIA. Then, however, it was hard and painful. It was the kind of ordeal that can forge enduring friendships. Sam was that kind of a friend.
In those years, I also learnt that Sam was a mathematical genius. As soon as we would land in Dakar, he would head for the Accounts office, take charge of all the books, and go through them meticulously. No matter how long it took, 12 or 24 hours, Sam would work until he would have a report ready for discussion between the two of us. Soon, word went around that it would be foolhardy for anyone to try and pull a fast one on Sam.
Students and scholars came to CODESRIA for different reasons, some for the thrill of travel, others to be part of a Pan-African conversation on issues of the day, and yet others to access otherwise scarce resources for research. Sam shared all those motives but, above all, he was among the few who unfailingly gave more than he received. When it came to facing temptation or intimidation, his was a towering presence. Sam stood for integrity and steadfastness, a calm intelligence and a cool deliberation, a level head in a crisis situation, and a free spirit in a party that was sure to follow every difficult episode.
Sam was one of the few who presented a seamless blend of this capacity for sobriety, integrity and joy that marked the CODESRIA crowd – all with a cigarette in one hand no matter the time of day, and a glass of beer at the end of the day. The ground on which this companionship was nurtured was the city of Dakar. We came to it from different corners of the continent, all marginal in one way or another, all looking for freedom, most of all the freedom of expression, as if gasping for oxygen. Out of that common endeavor were born close associations and lasting comradries.
Sam’s major scholarship was in the field of agrarian studies. Always unassuming, he seldom talked of his own scholarly work unless someone raised it first. For me that occasion came in 2008 when the London Review of Books invited me to write a piece on Zimbabwe. The land reform was the big issue at the time. I pulled together whatever studies on the subject I could lay my hands on. Three sources stood above all others as original and reliable: one from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex, another from the University of Western Cape and then Sam’s work at the African Institute of Agrarian Studies in Harare. As I read these sources, and the press reports on their findings, I learnt something about the politics of knowledge production and its recognition in the public sphere. Two facts were crystal clear to me: one, that Sam had been several steps ahead of the others; and, two, that his work was the last to be recognized. It was almost as if the press went by a rule of thumb: when it came to ideas, the chain had to originate in a Western University, and the link go through a South African institution, before it came to an African researcher.
I discussed this with Sam. He smiled, as if to say, what’s new? At home, his critics were at pains to paint him as partisan. If he showed that the land reform had improved the lot of a large number of the landless, those in the opposition discounted it as the claim of someone with the regime. But if he refused to give blanket support to the regime, those with it said he must have hidden links to the opposition. When it came to public policy, Sam took the cue from his research, always fearless, unafraid, and hopeful. He was a voice listened to by all, especially when he was the target of criticism. Whatever their disagreement, all knew that Sam was not susceptible to corruption, and that he would not offer an opinion unless it was informed by deep research.
The last time I saw Sam was at the CODESRIA General Assembly in Dakar in June. Only two months before, we had been together in the city of Hangzhou in China at a conference organized by the Inter-Asia School to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Bandung. The hospitality was overwhelming. Every meal was like a banquet; every plate on the table was renewed before it could be empty; wine and drinks flowed. Sam was relaxed, as he reminisced of our efforts to build CODESRIA over the past decades, and reflected about future plans for the African Institute of Agrarian Studies. I recall this as if it was yesterday: Sam, smiling, trusting, reassuring, strong, purposeful, and thoughtful, yet again doing what he was best at, charting a road none had travelled before, but at the same time taking you along.
This is one journey, dear Sam, that you take alone. You leave this world as you came into it, alone, but this world is a better place, and we are better off, because we had the privilege of being part of your world. The loss is great and the heart is heavy, and it is hard and painful to say good-bye. As we grieve for our loss, we also celebrate your life.