CALL THE CORRUPT WHAT THEY ARE – THIEVES! Reflections on Corruption and Culture in Africa using perspectives from three Zimbabwean researchers[1]

In practically every African market where citizens sell and buy in semi-formal environments, it is almost a universal truth that you are likely to face death if citizens point a finger at you, shout “Thief” and you run.  However, if the same citizens point a finger at you and shout “Corrupt”, laughter is likely to be heard even if you run.  Would the fight against corruption in Africa be different if we called the corrupt “thieves” – and explained that they are indiscriminate thieves whose victims are often the poor and most vulnerable in society? In Zimbabwe, it is a bigger insult to be called a “Sellout” than  “Corrupt”; but would a “Thief” be a worse person that a “Sellout”? In Kenya, a media survey in 2016 indicated that a majority of the youth were willing to engage in corrupt practices as long as they were not caught, but would the finding be different if the question was around corruption as thievery? Would our attitude to the culture of corruption change if every case of corruption were translated into numbers of persons robbed by the actions of the corrupt?

The 2016 Zimbabwe Annual State of Corruption Report (ZASCR) set out to understand “the cost of corruption on the economy, politics and service delivery in Zimbabwe 2000-2015”.  The approach assumed that a presentation of empirical evidence on corruption could lead to increased awareness, and that in turn lead to changed behaviours by individuals – to either tackle the problem or join in its perpetuation depending on the cost of either actions.  The evidence presented in the three case studies painted a mixed picture – where citizens had over the last fifteen years resisted corruption, but also instances where they had enjoyed the benefits that come with corruption; and the balance sheet was one that started the process of providing a deep dive into the roots and origins of corruption in Zimbabwe.  In that respect, ZASCR 2016 had outlined an agenda for future studies and advocacy strategies that would have the potential to equip Zimbabwean society with the tools to better understand the underlying drivers of corruption beyond its manifestations projected in the popular media. 

The three position papers presented also provided a good understanding of post-colonial foundations of corruption, while recognising that Zimbabwe was no more corrupt than other African countries; an argument to encourage students of corruption to better understand historical contexts.  Llyod Sachikonye sketched out how political decisions had had economic consequences; and Prosper Chitambara ably showed what these consequences had meant for service delivery – itself well dissected by Sandra Bhatasara by digging into the Local Government sector.  The result was a body of knowledge that points to the critical role the State and its institutions play in creating the conditions for corrupt practices while nurturing them by protecting the perpetrators.  The papers also show that citizens are paying a higher price for services because lack of political will to tackle corruption has led to poor governance, degraded rule of law and institutions, and destroyed infrastructure and economic development.

Political decisions in the 1990s to wage a war in the DRC and the unplanned pensions and allowance pay outs for War Veterans set the stage for the land invasions of 2000.  The political governance patterns that Zimbabwe entered the new Millennium with had far-reaching economic consequences: framed by hyperinflation, deindustrialization, and informalisation driven by rising levels of unemployment. The resulting economic decline and depressed economic performance deprived the State of the revenue needed to maintain the kind of service delivery that the country had enjoyed during the first fifteen years of independence after 1980.  As urban residents shifted their political support from the party of liberation to new opposition parties, political leadership in urban local authorities also shifted to these new parties; while central government leadership shifted its attention to rural service delivery.  The resulting tension between ZANU(PF) central administration and MDC local government management is shown to be at the heart of declining economic performance and service delivery; with corrupt practices taking on the semblance of legitimate tools of political contestation between an elite leadership seeking to exert political, economic, and service delivery hegemony in various spheres of national life.

 The three papers paint a picture of extensive institutional decay, collapse, and capture by different groups in the State – in turn sucking in parts of the private sector into corrupt practices that transfer public resources from services for the general population and channels it to support personal consumption by those with access to State power – be it at central or local government.  With Central Government revenues mostly going towards meeting the wage costs of its employees (less than 5% of the population), intense competition has developed between groups within the State trying to control the remaining small portion (often less than 15% of central government revenue) meant to meet the needs of over 90% of the population.  The papers demonstrate that perpetrators of corruption also wield political power, act with impunity, operate in small political groups (factions), and lack the political will to end corruption.  In return, citizens rationally calculate the cost of confronting well-connected and powerful corrupt groups and adopt the view that corrupt practices are the price one pays for securing services for individuals and their family within the market.

The commercialisation of corruption has become the means for securing more resources for the State from an increasingly impoverished population – that considers the Police, City Council, Vehicle Inspection Department, and Education as the most corrupt institutions in Zimbabwe: these are the institutions citizens frequently come into contact with when seeking services, and where individual State agents collect revenue on their own behalf rather than for the State.  Service delivery has become the face of corruption that is visible to most of the population.  On the other had, Judiciary is considered least corrupt, followed by Registry and Permits (consistent with an economy where liberalization after 2009 reduced the number of such instruments in the regulation of economic activities).   Citizen trust in State institutions described in the pre-2000 period quickly gave way to cynicism in the post-hyperinflation and economic liberalization period after 2005; and petty corruption has become accepted as the “cost of doing business”, with corrupt practices being descripted as “the new normal” as citizens seek a new equilibrium in their dealings with State institutions.  In this respect, citizens are faced by the choice of paying bribes to get services, or paying to avoid the higher cost of contravening regulations and laws enforced by State agents.

The three papers have explored the roles of governance and patronage in fostering corruption under conditions of limited political will to tackle the problem.  The conclusion that corruption denies citizens access to services has generated arguments on what role media and Non-State Actors could play in placing in the public space information on State actions so that power and corruption can be contested between State and citizen actors.  Improved measures of State performance have been identified as possible tools for showing what can be done to stop the State from “turning on its citizens”. For the interaction between politics, economics, and service delivery to tackle corruption, the roles of policy-making and institutional development were identified as critical.  Changes in politics are seen as drivers of economic change, which in turn are identified as necessary to change the parameters of and means for service delivery.

The cultural dimensions of corruption are both country and society-specific.  In the case of Zimbabwe, corruption cannot be understood by just looking at the post-2000 or even post-1980 periods; the reviews needs to go further into the foundations laid by a colonial administration interacting with a population that was also resisting colonial laws and regulations – and where diverting State resources became an anti-colonial statement.  It is culturally significant that a Zimbabwean considers it a bigger insult to be called a “Sellout” (a term used to describe those perceived to be collaborating with former colonial rulers) than to be called “Corrupt”. 

A dive into the social, political, and economic past could help future students of corruption gain a deeper understanding of the cultural roots of corruption; and start informing anti-corruption strategies that tackle the under-lying causes of “legitimized corruption”.  It is a challenge facing many countries in Africa, and beyond; and whose outcome can only be changed by the public dissemination of evidence on corruption and its consequences – especially its impacts on the whole fabric of any society where corruption is prevalent.


[1] Based on a note “Can approaches to the study of corruption be innovated?” Summary note on the Transparency International Zimbabwe Annual State of Corruption Report 2016