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Africa is not a country: Branding all Africa corrupt is not just stupid, it is racist

Africa is not a country: Branding all Africa corrupt is not just stupid, it is racist
A woman and child walk past a mural in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Legnan Koula)

The kind of framing of Africa that is prevalent betrays a tendency to homogenise the continent, as if geography and politics are identical, obscuring the very obvious fact that the continent is home to 54 separate countries.

In discussions about “Africa”, we encounter sweeping and often troubling generalisations. The world is full of talk, rarely of specific African nations and societies, but of a place called “Africa” itself.

There is a tendency to reduce vast and diverse spaces to a single story composed of “treacheries, clichés, stereotypes and pseudo-certitudes”. This talk, both on the continent and off, seems to have a certain intensity, full of anguished energy and a moral concern.

Africa is represented as the paragon of failure. It is never just “Africa”, but always the crisis in “Africa”, the problems of “Africa” and/or the failure of “Africa”.

Such dystopian (if not apocalyptic) views of the continent have proven to be resilient over time. They mostly rely on an extensive use of metaphors and hyperboles that echo old, deeply rooted stereotypes that portray the continent as a place without hope or future.

The Economist’s infamous editorial published in 2000, in which Africa is referred to as the “hopeless continent”, is illustrative. It conjured up images of destitution, failure and despair, floods and famine, poverty and pestilence, brutality, despotism and corruption, dreadful wars and plunder, rape, cannibalism, amputation and even weather to suggest that Africa’s future was definitely doomed.

The profile of “corruption” and a “concern with corruption” in development talk has grown hugely in the aftermath of the Cold War and it has managed to take centre stage in much development policy-making and rhetoric. 

The anti-corruption industry’s quantitative indices, or corruption perception indexes (developed by Transparency International, for example) being the most popular ones, typically show corruption to be a problem of the Global South (if not exclusively, then predominantly), Africa in particular.

Corruption is said not only to plague African states but to be, in addition, an especially African phenomenon. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn’s speech in 1996, when he referred to the “cancer of corruption” in Africa, was a decisive moment in the current articulation of these signifiers: “Africa” and “corruption”. 

Corruption becomes, on these terms, a peculiar pathological problem that is to be found “only in Africa”. The “found in Africa” discourse regarding corruption is the product of a sociology of knowledge that sees corruption as not only indigenous to Africa but as perhaps singularly the most important challenge or essence of the African condition. 

Such a framing betrays a tendency to homogenise the continent, as if geography and politics are identical, obscuring the very obvious fact that the continent is home to 54 separate countries.

There are commonalities among them, for sure: the experience of colonialism is one. Even in this regard, however, French, British, Portuguese, Belgian and German colonialism, as well as the personal rule of King Leopold or the settler colonies of South Africa and Rhodesia, produced important variety in this regard.

These countries have common histories of nationalism and anti-colonial struggle in that diverse nationalist movements drew on shared bodies of political thought and common languages of struggle, from Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and Negritude to Garveyism. 

How they interpreted these sources and what they made of them differed widely, however, producing different kinds of political solidarities and generating unpredictable and localised political alliances and formations.

Many combined Marxism, for instance, with other ideological and political traditions, including Christianity or Islam or local belief systems, producing complex, changing and creolised political cultures and practices.

The process of decolonisation and national independence threw together diverse peoples, speaking multiple and often mutually unintelligible languages, into common political communities. They had diverse cultures, divergent political histories and forms of communal government, and often had no historical experience of living together.

It is this fact, more than any other, that sharpened the tendency to dictatorship in the period after independence and which made politics in these countries so unstable. 

The tendency to homogenise this diversity is not, however, the result simply of a Western “gaze”. It is equally the consequence of African nationalisms that want to herd this extraordinary diversity of subjectivities, identities, actors, groups and classes under the nomenclature, “African”.

Corruption in general

Although one cannot be oblivious or simply ignore quite suspicious continuities in the ways in which the continent is represented in academic writing, but also media reporting then and now, there is an abundance of evidence that many African countries are struggling with ongoing challenges of economic growth and political stability, and of the human condition – though, again, there is a great diversity in this as well.

It seems there is a misunderstanding of the African state and politics, where African politics often gets reduced to personal accumulation and patronage, devoid of any ideals, struggles for justice or notions of equality, and it is this “misunderstanding” that made and still makes anti-corruption interventions ineffective, if not counterproductive.

Corruption is conventionally defined “as the abuse of public office for private gain” and it is mainly seen as a problem of poorly designed institutions. The phenomenon manifests itself in extremely diverse ways and yet, in the most common definitions, all different practices are lumped together.

Yuen Yuen Ang’s work on China, on what she labels as “the paradox of economic boom and vast corruption” in China, has been extremely insightful. She examines China’s growth trajectory through the prism of corruption. By applying a quite innovative approach, she manages to resolve the paradox of “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history” in the midst of endemic corruption.

Ang “unbundles corruption” practices in China and provides a sophisticated analysis that shows there are different kinds of corruption in China, and some of them are actually good for growth. 

The profit-sharing arrangement, or what Ang labels as “access money” (large bribes or favours given to high-level officials in exchange for land, contracts or credit) has benefited growth. These payoffs push the economy forward at a fast pace, although they do create long-term problems.

China did manage to curtail the “bad kinds of corruption” since the 1990s, but access corruption has persisted, mostly sustained by the pressure Beijing puts on local leaders to promote economic growth.

What becomes very clear from Ang’s study is that corruption cannot be viewed and measured as a one-dimensional phenomenon. Serious studies of corruption have to start with “unbundling corruption” into qualitative, distinctive types followed by unpacking and revising the widespread assumptions about it.

Scholarship of corruption in Africa, in contrast, is dominated by a tendency towards unfortunate generalisations. Achille Mbembe argues that this is the result of what he calls “descriptivism”, which is neither a method nor a theory. It is a way of defining and reading African life-forms that simply relies on a series of anecdotes and negative statements, or that simply turns to statistical indices to measure the gap between what Africa is and what we are told it ought to be. 

Commentary on corruption in “Africa” can be regarded as an example of descriptivism, taking for granted a sharp and self-evident distinction between private and public spheres in the organisation of political life.

There is another tendency, however, of detailed and richly textured ethnography and historiography of life-forms. Deeply embedded within a tradition of area studies, such work provides powerful examples of how we should think and write about human agency, as well as what analytical strategies we should deploy to describe and interpret specific forms of social life in particular settings. 

Such an ethnographic instinct runs against the grain of discourses of “Africa”. What emerges in the place of such a homogenising signifier is a geography of tremendous variety and difference, both actually and historically. In this context, “corruption” as a social practice has to be understood in context.

Corruption in context

In his seminal work, Peter Ekeh (1975) provides a way of doing such contextual analysis. He argued in Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa that colonialism in Africa had produced a unique historical configuration in postcolonial Africa, one of two publics.

The primordial public is one where the individual sees his duties as moral obligations to benefit and sustain a primordial public of which he is a member. He has no material expectations from this public, and benefits are purely in the form of a sense of belonging and psychological security.

On the other hand, the civic public (including the artefacts of colonial rule, government and public institutions) is perceived as amoral and there is a strong emphasis on their purely economic value.

In this situation, people make a great effort to sustain the primordial public, often by extracting from the civic domain about which they feel estranged and ambivalent. The civic public is not an object of attachment, that is, while the primordial public is always in need of care.

Many of Africa’s political challenges are precisely due to the dialectic relationship between the two publics and the lack of generalised morality that underlines them. Moreover, as a hermeneutic, such an analysis helps reframe the problem of corruption not as a moral weakness or even as a political economy misaligned with development ambitions, but as a phenomenon related to the specifically local organisation of political life.

In the South African context, Ekeh’s framework helps explain a recurring phenomenon of post-apartheid life – almost wherever the African National Congress governs, there has been a general decline in public infrastructure.

In municipalities across the country, even in large urban metros including Johannesburg, basic maintenance of roads, water purification plants and electrical systems is poor and even shocking.

It is not just in cities or towns that such deterioration is manifest. In some cases, the neglect is existential for the economy. A decade of looting and poor management in the country’s state energy company, Eskom, leaves the country in literal darkness for hours a day, every day.

Similarly, the condition of the state logistics company, Transnet, means that millions of tons of coal and other commodities are unable to reach ports for export.

Typically, these situations are “explained” in terms of corruption, where morality (or the lack of morality) of the protagonists is the chief explanans. It is easy to move from such analysis to judgments about the moral character of post-apartheid rule; indeed, of post-colonial government in general.

Ekeh helps interrupt such moral reasoning. South Africa’s state companies, Eskom and Transnet, were not simply products of an apartheid-era civic public. They were its economic crown jewels.

They have been looted not simply for self-enrichment, but frequently to fund political campaigns in the ANC itself; what we might call on Ekeh’s terms a primordial public.

In other words, we might regard corruption in the civic public as an amoral activity in the service of a moral one. Where we would elaborate on Ekeh’s model is to propose that in the South African case, the “primordial” community is not a kinship group but a political party.

Africans as abstractions

If we start from Africa as a site of diversity and multiplicity, then corruption and other such phenomena, including economic stagnation and political instability, are not reducible to “African” problems and expressions of some or other African condition.

They have to be dealt with in the specific circumstances of the settings in which they occur, sometimes local, sometimes national, sometimes regional, sometimes global.

Nor is it possible to assume that the social practices, which law and international organisations call “corruption”, have the same social meaning in these environments.

From this perspective, the struggle against corruption is also the struggle to release Africans, as such, from the homogenising discourses that reduce them, the Africans, as abstractions. DM

Ivor Chipkin and Jelena Vidojević are both Senior Researchers and Founders of the think tank, the New South Institute.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Sorry I don’t the racist bit. I get Africa is not a country, but neither is it a race.

    As an aside, as your focus is racism if you really want to stop it I strongly suggest you stop drawing attention to it at every opportunity. It’s a tired destructive topic, and we really need to move on. We are one world now, and I can tell you for sure the only people that win from the topic are the bad and unscrupulous powerful of this world (they do not deserve the term “leaders”).

    So lets be proud of ourselves people, in all our myriad forms. No-one is better or worse, we’re all just humans, and unless we start working together we’re on a sure hiding to nothing.

  • Ben Harper says:

    But it’s true

  • Trenton Carr says:


  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    That was disappointing! I was hoping to read concrete evidence of where corruption isn’t endemic in Africa (more places than you’d think, actually), instead of a contorted attempt to excuse corruption through the prism of victim mentality colonial hangovers. In my experience, having travelled most of this continent for 30 odd years and much of the rest of the world besides, you get petty corruption in poorer countries by officials who either don’t get paid or get paid badly, and institutional corruption higher up the food chain pretty much everywhere, including Europe. And excusing the trashing of our SOEs in terms of giving to the party is rubbish – most of those who did it, did it purely for self enrichment.

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