Why Africa is so corrupt

South Africa, one of the largest and most economically powerful states in Africa, is ruled by a president who has been charged with large-scale corruption. Observers saw the election of Jacob Zuma in May 2009 as a sign of the increasing "Africanization" of South Africa. This implied, with a threatening undertone, that the country is now being run by a "big man" who is abusing his post to enrich himself and his people, who interprets the public interest only as a personal interest and who at best uses the laws against his opponents, but not used to enforce law. Even more recent examples are provided by the patriarchs of North Africa, who have been considered “benevolent” for decades and who in the course of the past year were condemned by their own people as thoroughly corrupt kleptocrats. The states between the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean seem to confirm the rule: African politicians use corruption in an almost stereotypical manner in order to remain in power and in wealth. This appearance should be examined more closely here - in order to come to the perhaps not astonishing conclusion that corruption is less an African than a general social phenomenon. The more pressing question is when corruption becomes a problem.

"Corruption is a way of life"
Although corruption is a very broad term, it is broadly defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Conventionally, this is related to public power, that is, the misuse of resources or influence by office holders who, through their behavior, violate the public interest. Most of the time, this behavior violates codified norms and procedures and is therefore illegal. However, this does not necessarily mean that it is also perceived as illegitimate. It is often the case that certain forms of corruption are socially accepted or have normalized in everyday life. "Corruption is a way of life", as a Kenyan colleague put it to me. The world map of the Corruption Perceptions Index (http: //cpi.transparency. Org / cpi2011 / results) provides impressive - if not intended - evidence: widespread corruption is the global norm, not the exception. Corruption is generally far less spectacular than the major corruption scandals in the media would suggest. Let us take nepotism in the Swiss municipalities as an example: although it contradicts the letter of the law in many cases, it is often accepted today in the sense of social cement and solidarity. In fact, corruption doesn't have to be something negative. Certain “corrupt” practices can actually breath soulless procedures, guidelines or laws into humanity and proportionality. Certain forms of corruption are very close to so-called “social capital”, that is to say, informal social relationships, networks and norms that build trust and increase efficiency. If this is true in Switzerland, which has grown over time, it is all the more true in African countries, where the overwhelming majority of constitutions and laws date back to the colonial era or have recently been drawn up by Western experts through development cooperation; ironically, especially in the last decade in the area of ​​good governance and the fight against corruption. This raises the question of how strongly these norms are anchored in society and what practical relevance they have for everyday social life. Corruption is not just culturally legitimized, but is subject to a variety of other factors. Culturally legitimized does not mean that the values ​​and norms are timeless. On the contrary, they are subject to constant change. Not least, they have to do with the balance of power in a society. Ruling norms and practices are mostly enforced by those in power. So it takes a lot of commitment, courage and perseverance to change this, as the current political events in North Africa show. In addition, a variety of global factors influence the extent and type of corruption. This can be in a positive sense, such as international conventions against corruption (such as the criminalization of bribery of foreign incumbents, which has been provided for by an OECD convention since 1999). Conversely, this global influence can also anchor endemic corruption; A prime example of this is the Cold War era, when for decades kleptocratic regimes that were in defiance of human rights were supported by geopolitical interests.

"If you're poor, if you're not corrupt, you're stupid"
In South Africa, the international excitement surrounding the corruption scandal has given incumbent President Zuma a domestic political boost. Does that have anything to do with the often cited "tribal culture" (a term that makes every ethnologist shudder)? How do you explain the political culture in a thoroughly European state such as Italy under the now disgraced Berlusconi? His term of office was marked by an accumulation of political power and economic influence by the president; through laws tailored to protect the corrupt practices of the president and his followers and waved through in parliament; as well as the public discrediting of judges, public prosecutors and the parliament by the president himself - and yet Berlusconi was re-elected several times by the Italian people and was in office for over ten years. As in the case of South Africa, which has developed a very committed public as well as an independent judiciary, not least from its history of injustice, this does not mean that such phenomena were recognized by society as a whole. But obviously political, social and economic forces are involved that make certain actions acceptable at least from a political perspective - or make them appear to a certain extent as inevitable. This further dissolves the image of “African corruption”. This form of corruption no longer has much to do with cultural norms, but it does with bribery, favoritism and political patronage. And of course with a lot of money that benefits a few. The fact is, however, that this behavior can be observed very often in African countries. Only one further, special aspect should be pointed out here: the dramatic changes that the overwhelming majority of African states have undergone since the 1980s are almost systematically ignored. Previously mostly one-party states and not infrequently planned economies, they have transformed into free-market multi-party democracies in just a few years. Almost overnight, profit and wealth are not only accepted socially, but also viewed as desirable. Wealth becomes a measure of social status. As a successful Tanzanian architect told me with a wink in 2003: "Corruption is a higher way of competition" - an entrepreneurial approach to the new opportunities that have opened up thanks to the opening of a globalized market, without the corresponding regulatory institutions being in place or even anchored are. Corruption becomes the means of the smartest, the most skillful and the most unscrupulous. "If you’re poor, if you’re not corrupt, you’re stupid" - this is the statement of an outraged but disaffected building contractor in Tanzania.

The problem of corruption
Corruption is not an African phenomenon, but is often perceived as such selectively. Corruption does not necessarily have to be problematic either - that is very closely related to the context and the type of corruption. Corruption becomes a problem when it leads to the exclusion of large parts of the population from the social, economic and political life of a state. When corruption in the literal sense determines the life and death of people, when it cements powerlessness and a lack of opportunities. When everyday survival depends on corruption: "We survive through corruption, we perish through corruption." So the core of the problem is not geographical: it is a question of local and global power relations.