The 'African Time' syndrome and a cure for punctuality

The 'African Time' syndrome and a cure for punctuality

Africa can transcend its chronic tardiness and embark on a path of punctuality.
The habitual tardiness has given rise to phrases like "African time" and "Black man time." Photo: TRT Afrika

By Ambassador Dwomoh-Doyen Benjamin

Punctuality, the reliable cornerstone of many societies, seems to lose its grip when it comes to several parts of Africa.

The African-time, as it is commonly referred to, has been a nagging issue across the continent for years.

Extensive research and conversations with individuals from various African countries shed light on the critical nature of this problem. It hinders progress, disrupts schedules, and undermines the value of time.

However, by understanding the roots of this perception and embracing innovative solutions, Africa can transcend its chronic tardiness and embark on a path of punctuality.

Dr. Kemi Wale-Olaitan, the dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at the African University College of Communication (AUCC), offers valuable insights into the African-time syndrome.

In her observations, she highlights the alarming trend of several dignitaries being invited to events that are scheduled to start promptly at 12:00 pm, only to show up hours later.

This habitual tardiness thwarts development and perpetuates a cycle of inefficiency.

According to Dr Kemi, the African-time syndrome stems from a complex interplay of cultural, historical, and infrastructural factors.

“Traditionally, African societies placed greater emphasis on completing tasks within a given timeframe rather than adhering to a rigid schedule. This approach was well-suited to an agrarian lifestyle, where time was dictated by natural cues like the position of the sun or the crowing of a rooster. This cultural interpretation has given rise to phrases like "African time" and "Black man time."

However, in the modern world, where schedules and deadlines are crucial for success, this approach to time management can hinder progress.

Chronic tardiness disrupts scheduled programs, compromises effectiveness and hampers growth. Photo: Reuters 

The Prevalence of “African Time”

Delving deeper into the issue, it becomes evident that the African-time syndrome transcends national boundaries and affects countries throughout the continent.

Dr. Bishop Murphy Jackson, a scholar and Bishop based in Liberia, echoes the severity of the issue in his ministry.

In Liberia, lateness is colloquially known as "Liberian time." This chronic tardiness disrupts scheduled programs, compromises effectiveness, and hampers the growth and potential of his ministry.

In my conversation with a Uganda-based film producer and actor recently, he emphasised how this phenomenon drives up production budgets and negatively impacts the film industry, adding that anytime they want to have a call time, they reduce the actual time by an hour or more, to bait people to arrive at the intended time.

Dr. Bishop Murphy Jackson decries lateness even in the church in Liberia. Photo: Dwomoh-Doyen Benjamin

According to Ambassador George Egeh, time mismanagement is a very worrying trend in Ghana, giving rise to the term “Ghana Man Time’’ for GMT, where a programme scheduled to start at 8 am will have attendees arriving an hour or more later.

Similar accounts from Mr. Phil Efe Benard, a veteran filmmaker from Nigeria and Mr. Tegha King, a social commentator from Cameroon reveal that the issue of lack of punctuality holds true in their respective countries.

Mr Tafadzwa Charles Ziwa, a scientist based in Zimbabwe, also confirms the prevalence of the African time syndrome in Zimbabwe. Mr. Jeromy Mumba, a celebrated actor in Zambia confirms the phenomenon of African punctuality challenge in Zambia, labeling it as "Zambian time."

An entrepreneur, actress and producer based in Kenya confirms the trend in the country. She tells me that it’s a cultural thing, with efforts being made by institutions and businesses to change it.

Refilwe Maitisa from South Africa revealed that though time mismanagement does not cut across the South African population, it’s still a challenge among some citizens in South Africa. The converging experiences of several other individuals across the continent resonate clearly – the issue of punctuality must be addressed in Africa.

The value of time

As a Pan African dedicated to finding holistic solutions to Africa’s challenges, I have extensively analysed this problem from multiple angles.

One of the primary factors contributing to the African-time syndrome lies in the perception of time and its value.

In some societies outside Africa, many individuals are paid per hour of work, providing a clear means of measuring the worth of their time.

This structure fosters time consciousness and facilitates effective time management.

Conversely, in Africa, monthly salaries are the norm, detached from the concept of hourly earnings. As a result, the average African finds it challenging to grasp the value of time in monetary terms, leading to a lack of commitment to punctuality.

Consider this: the understanding of overtime and its worth is commonplace in other societies especially in the West. Each additional hour laboured equates to a tangible sum.

Contrastingly, in several African settings, this correlation falters, fostering a lack of appreciation for the value of time invested beyond the norm.

The need to recalibrate this mindset emerges as a pivotal step toward nurturing a culture of punctuality.

Outside Africa, many people are paid per hour of work, providing a clear means of measuring their time. Photo: Reuters

Infrastructural Challenges

Africa's infrastructural challenges also contribute to the African-time syndrome.

Poor road conditions, frequent accidents on our roads, and unpredictable traffic congestion make it difficult to plan and adhere to strict schedules.

This unpredictability often leads to a sense of resignation, where individuals accept lateness as an inevitable consequence of the transportation system.

Furthermore, the predominant 8-hour workday in many African countries can reinforce a relaxed attitude towards time during certain periods of the day.

The belief that limited productivity can be achieved within specific timeframes can lead to procrastination and a lack of urgency.

Addressing the syndrome

To address the African-time syndrome, it is crucial to confront the elephant in the room. The fear of sounding stereotypical or judgmental has hindered a critical examination of the situation and impeded the search for viable solutions.

Overcoming the African-time syndrome requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses both the cultural and infrastructural factors at play.

It is a challenge that demands collective action from governments, civil society organizations, businesses, and individuals.

Redefining the Value of Time

A shift towards hourly wages or performance-based compensation could instill a greater appreciation for the value of time among African workers.

This transition would necessitate a reassessment of labour practices and employer-employee relationships to ensure equitable compensation and sustainable business models.

By establishing this connection between time and value, Africans can better appreciate the worth of their time and develop the necessary skills for effective time management.

Investing in infrastructure development, particularly in transportation systems, is essential to reduce travel time and improve predictability. This includes upgrading roads, expanding public transportation options, and implementing traffic management systems.

Transitioning to a 24-hour economy could unlock new economic opportunities and enhance productivity. This would require a shift in mindsets, adapting business hours, and ensuring adequate infrastructure to support around-the-clock operations.

A shift towards a 24-hour economy in Africa can forge a new path of punctuality and productivity. Photo: Reuters

Taking Ownership

By challenging cultural norms and encouraging open dialogue, we can shift the paradigm surrounding punctuality in Africa. Acknowledging the African-time syndrome for what it is – a hindrance to progress – we can collectively work towards a cure.

Cooperation between governments, civil societies, organizations, and individuals is paramount to effecting real change. Individuals also play a significant role in addressing the African-time syndrome.

Cultivating a sense of personal responsibility for time management, adhering to schedules, and respecting others' time commitments are crucial steps towards a more punctual society.

The African-time syndrome has long plagued the continent, diminishing efficiency and hindering development.

However, by understanding the historical context, addressing the perception of time's value, navigating infrastructural challenges, and considering a shift towards a 24-hour economy, Africa can forge a new path of punctuality and productivity.

Let us break free from the shackles of lateness and embrace a future where time is respected and utilised effectively, propelling us towards progress and success.

It is time for Africa to redefine its relationship with time, leaving the African-time syndrome behind and embracing a new era of punctuality. Only then can we unlock the full potential of the continent and thrive on a global stage.

The author, Ambassador Dwomoh-Doyen Benjamin, is the Executive Director of African Chamber of Content Producers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT Afrika.

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