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Let's stop moralising about corruption in Africa

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 7 July 2005

The big debate in the UK and Ireland at the moment is whether debt relief will help Africa, given that many African governments are corrupt. President Mbeki’s recent move to axe Deputy President Zuma because of a ‘generally corrupt relationship’ with Schabir Shaik, a Durban businessman sentenced to 15 years for corruption and fraud, seems to have offered a rebuttal. The Western world has declared its support for Mbeki’s approach, emphasising how he has set an example for the rest of Africa. To some degree, he has, but what is annoying is that everyone seems so surprised that an African leader would take such a step. Granted, many African countries are appallingly corrupt, but Mbeki is a world leader, not only an African leader. Making bold inferences about the importance of his actions for the rest of Africa reinforces the idea that somehow Mbeki is an exceptional black man and that Africans are somehow endemically corrupt or incapable of simply doing the right thing. We would all do well to remember that Mbeki’s actions set a precedent the world over and not only for Africa. Mbeki is also not alone. A recent anticorruption campaign in Nigeria has resulted in the firing of several senior officials. The Kenyan government is allegedly investigating 18 officials highlighted in a British government dossier. This is not to say Africa does not have a serious problem with corruption or that a dash of scepticism about recent anticorruption initiatives would go amiss. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index confirms that 18 of the 50 most corrupt nations are in Africa. Corruption has damaged investment and poverty-relief efforts. According to the World Bank, widespread corruption can cause the growth rate of a country to be 0,5 to 1,0 percentage points lower than that of a similar country with little corruption. But no country has the moral high ground on this issue. Transparency International points out that corrupt international business transactions involve both those who take and those who give. According to the 1997 United Nations World Development Report, 15% of all companies in industrialised countries have to pay bribes to win or retain business. All countries also have their corruption scandals. Tax evasion from the small scale to the grand is the corrupt vice of many wealthy people.

From a cynical perspective, if Zuma was in Tony Blair’s Cabinet he probably would have jumped before he was pushed. A well-timed resignation, perhaps when allegations about Shaik first emerged, may well have saved his skin, just as it has for ministers in the Blair Cabinet implicated in various scandals. Once the storm has passed, Blair has a tendency to reinstate ministers suspected of wrongdoing.

Of course, just because everyone is doing it does not let Africa off the hook, and the problem is dramatically worse in parts of the African continent than elsewhere. But in every society, as Transparency International points out, there are those who try to ‘beat the system’ and, if the system is vulnerable, there will be more of them. For Transparency International, the issue is not one of ‘moral superiority’, but developing the ability to control the menace. The debate on corruption must move beyond proselytising about corruption and Africa, as if they are synonymous. The result is that the continent as a whole is treated dismissively, rather than nuanced solutions for each unique country context being sought. So let us stop the moralising about Africa and its leadership and find ways to join the battle.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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