The growth of illicit networks and organized crime in Africa are interwoven into the narrative of independence and statehood on the African Continent. In Africa, as with the world as a whole, criminal activity has integrated itself into the legitimate economy, and the line between legitimate and illegitimate behaviours is increasingly blurred. 

This report is drawn from a seminar on “Organized Crime in Southern Africa” hosted by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in March 2014.

The seminar brought together 20 experts from think tanks, NGOs, independent journalists, academia and the private sector who are working on organized crime in the countries of Southern Africa. Under Chatham House rules, the participants shared their experience and insights through a series of case studies and discussion over two days.

The objective of the meeting was to serve as a platform to better understand and assess the way that organized crime is engaging with governance, democracy, statehood, human security and development. By bringing together policymakers, practitioners and analysts dealing with these challenges, the Global Initiative hopes to develop a working network among relevant actors and share information that, in turn, can translate into more effective strategies to combat transnational organized crime in the region, or potentially more broadly.  While the experiences, trajectories and contexts of each country, and the prevalent organized crime flows and structures with which it is grappling are different, a number of key themes emerged over the course of the meeting:

Evolution of organized crime in post-colonial Africa: Participants noted that while organized crime and corruption have been a feature of statehood in Africa before and since decolonisation, the scope and scale of the problem are now at unprecedented levels. Efforts to promote stability, state consolidation and development all require dealing explicitly with organized crime and its impacts.

Defining organized crime in Africa: Longstanding controversies of the relevance of organized crime to the African context have stymied an effective understanding of the significant growth of the phenomenon on the continent. Analytical tools that focus excessively on using seizure data to capture the extent and nature of criminal flows have overlooked the ways in which organized crime impacts on citizens and the state, which is essential in an African context. There remains a dearth of tools and resources available to assess, prioritise and address key issues, and while organized crime continues to evolve, our capacity for analysis, policymaking and program design lag behind.

Convergence between legitimate and illegitimate activities: Globalization and changing political contexts have led to a blurring of lines between legitimate and illegitimate activities, whereby both rely on increasingly sophisticated methods to operate. This has created a challenge for the ways organized crime is identified and understood in the region, which in turn has hampered the response.

The interaction between foreign and domestic criminal groups: A particular feature of Southern Africa is the way in which foreign actors have engaged with domestic criminal groups, both those that have taken privileged positions at the upper echelons of the state, as well as those who have created allegiances with local communities at source.  The discussions identified five ways in which foreign criminal networks have impacted local crime groups.

The absence of appropriate forums to engage and respond: The characteristics of organized crime in Southern Africa today require a new set of tools. Globalisation and technological advancement contributed to the proliferation of traditional forms of organized crime whilst also promoting a shift towards a sophistication of financial crimes that now require professional services. This evolution, combined with the increasing complicity of states in criminal activity, creates challenges for the traditional set of responses that are focused on the nation state, national legal frameworks and enforcement tools.

Participants concluded that organized crime is increasingly a challenge that is crossing borders and perpetuating insecurity across the sub-region, and there is an urgent need for a more systematic framework for sub-regional analysis, and for that analysis to be fed into policy making and program development.

The meeting was the first such effort by the Global Initiative and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to examine the organized crime challenges of a specific region, and part of a vision to host similar regional meetings across Africa and in other zones of fragility.