The MacMillan Center

Cape Town Workshop

Corruption and Governance in Africa

The World Bank estimates that, in a year, total bribes worldwide add up to approximately one trillion U.S. dollars. This incredible amount is about as large as the combined GDP of two of Africa’s most powerful economies, South Africa and Nigeria. Due to its overwhelming pervasiveness and its poisonous effects, corruption is the subject of a rapidly growing body of scholarship. Studies have found that corruption hurts the economy by generating uncertainty and by fueling excessive regulations (i.e., red tape). There is also evidence that corruption places people’s lives at grave risk.

In Africa, a continent with generally deficient governing institutions, corruption poses a particularly important challenge. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, six of the ten countries most burdened by corruption are located in this region. Even South Africa, one of the continent’s most successful nations, has witnessed a number of serious corruption scandals in recent years.

Given this unfortunate state of affairs, Global Integrity, The MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, and the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice collaborated in organizing an agenda-setting workshop titled, “Corruption and Governance in Africa.” The Stephen and Ruth Hendel Fund for Africa at Yale University provided the necessary funding for the workshop, which offered participants an opportunity to consider how scholars should apply analytic instruments to improve the African continent.

The workshop took place at Global Integrity’s offices in Woodstock, Cape Town, on May 16-17. A total of 25 individuals were in attendance (in alphabetical order): Karin Alexander (Institute for Democracy in Africa), Anthony Butler (University of Cape Town), Marianne Camerer (Global Integrity), Kamari Clarke (Yale University), Judith Cornell (University of Cape Town), Elizabeth Harrison (University of Sussex), Paul Lagunes (Yale University), Brian Levy (University of Cape Town), David Lewis (Corruption Watch), Malte Lierl (Yale University), Lucy Martin (Yale University), Itumeleng Makgetla (Yale University), Tabeth Masengu (Democratic Governance and Rights Unit), Robert Mattes (University of Cape Town), Nkosana Moyo (Mandela Institute for Development Studies), Vinothan Naidoo (University of Cape Town), Erica Penfold (Global Integrity), Pia Raffler (Yale University), Jeremy Seekings (University of Cape Town), Ian Shapiro (Yale University), Dadisai Taderera (Global Integrity), Raenette Taljaard (University of Cape Town), Rory Truex (Yale University), Hennie van Vuuren (Institute for Security Studies), and Daniel Weeks (Open Society Foundation).
During the two days, workshop participants addressed a variety of topics related to corruption in the course of six panels. The discussion was guided by four core questions. First, what problems does corruption pose for Africa? Second, what are the historical legacies of corruption in the region? Third, how can civil society and governments respond to the problem of corruption? Fourth and last, what are some of the empirical approaches best suited for studying corruption?

In preparation for the event, a select number of participants were required to develop brief essays. A total of 11 memos were prepared as fodder for the discussion. All participants were required to read the 70 pages’ worth of writing prior to attending the workshop. As a sampling of what the memos have to offer, the one written by Elizabeth Harrison, Dinah Rajak, and Anthony Butler suggests conducting ethnographic research that explores the relationships between local level accounts of petty corruption and national and international discourses of corruption prevention. Vinothan Naidoo draws attention to the dangers posed not by corruption, but by anti-corruption monitoring. Naidoo argues that nations trying to stem malfeasance through oversight must be careful not to generate institutional rigidity. Finally, Hennie Van Vuuren uses his memo to note that countries often fail to successfully prosecute corrupt elites at the time of democratic transition and that this has an impact on the ability of newly open societies to control corruption and promote accountability.

However, beyond what anyone wrote, the discussion itself also provided valuable insights. For instance, Nkosana Moyo showed a great deal of concern with the fact that corruption provokes waste at the system level, and so he suggested that activists and scholars adopt “a solution-based perspective.” Indeed, he proposed that people move away from a values debate and move toward an efficiency debate about the problem of corruption. Pairing the values (e.g., probity, honesty, etc.) with particular players (e.g., the U.S., the U.K., etc.) risks making those values seem undesirable to African governments. On a related topic, Moyo argued that too often the discourse on corruption is one-sided.

The workshop was a success in that it gave participants an opportunity to learn both from people who have studied corruption for some time and from the members of a new generation of scholars who study this topic. It was also valuable insofar as it allowed activists and researchers to partake in a vibrant intellectual exchange.