There is no African Time, in fact. There never was, and there never has been. This is the good news.
No society can hope to be competitive or catch up if it disrespects time. Unfortunately – and this is the bad news – the concept of African Time continues to provide a convenient excuse for the tardiness of those who are lazy or just plain rude. Of course, those who invoke African Time are not stupid, they know that by saying that it is part of African culture to disregard punctuality, very few will have the nerve to challenge them.
Like many things attributed to some ancient, but still prevalent social norm, African Time does not stand up to scrutiny. If you go to even the simplest village you immediately realise just how much the village folk respect time. If there is a gathering, the ordinary folk will all be there on time. What’s more, even the unemployed villager will be up at the crack of dawn to make the most of his day. So African Time is nothing but a myth.
I suspect all of us have known all along that African Time is a very tall tale told by those who want to be late and hide behind some supposedly collective and cultural disregard for time. But too many of us have been too polite to laugh in the face of those who try to peddle this nonsense and to tell them to be on time. Quite why we have been prepared to suffer largely in silence is beyond me, but I do think that in 2010 the time is ripe to say enough is enough.
African Time continues to give Africans a bad name. It lingers around like an awful smell that will just not go away. Everywhere you go you see examples of tardiness that can be linked back to the myth of African Time. I have lost count of the number of otherwise classy events held at swanky venues I have attended that still started an hour late. Nothing is safe from African Time. I have been to weddings that started up to three hours later than the advertised time. And the guests waited and survived on a mixture of small talk and gossip.
There is truly nothing more annoying than to receive an invitation to an up-market event and, when you arrive at the venue, there is hardly anyone there, not even the host. Invariably, if you bother to call them to find out why they are late, they tell you that they are around the corner, or the perennial favourite, they are five minutes away. Of course, that always turns out to be untrue and you end up waiting and wondering why they did not just choose a time they could manage.
What gets to me are the many senior officials in both politics and business that seem to delight in arriving late, as if this confirmed their status. As for the politicians, I have no words to describe their habitual failure to be on time – especially given that so many of them whizz past the traffic at the flick of their blue lights and their loud sirens.
What is particularly distressing is that the African Time bug has arrived at many schools. As you drive past a school you see a group of children casually walking over well past the official starting time. The child that has not been taught respect for time cannot possibly learn anything. The tragic thing is those who arrive late are invariably the first to leave. For some strange reason, they are always pressed for time when it comes to leaving their office or an event. That’s the only time you will discover that they actually own a watch.
The appeal to what seems to be ancient African customs makes it difficult for people to be direct in their criticism of African Time. We have all seen how those who have dared criticise what is presented as cultural have been branded intolerant, or even racist. As a result very few have the appetite for taking on any issue that can stir the cultural hornet’s nest. But I say, let us unmask these African Time charlatans and tell them that they need to join us in the 21st century and start taking time seriously. They will cost us our chance for progress.
The time for tolerating the myth of African Time has long passed, and if we are to be masters of our destiny, we need to stop suffering silently at the hands of those who have fashioned this popular excuse for what is simply a lack of punctuality.
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Dlamini is a writer, critic, traveller and portrait photographer. He also has a day job, sort of. His portraits of writers have been published in many top literary publications, but he mostly makes his living as Chairman of the Chillibush Group of Companies, which deals in the dark arts of advertising, public relations and event management. In 2007 Dlamini was the recipient of the South African Literary Awards' Literary Journalism prize. He regularly reviews books, especially from Southern Africa, and presents the The Victor Dlamini Literary Podcast. Recent columns:
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon