The general and widely accepted definition of corruption as 'the abuse of public office for private gain' presupposes a definite separation between the state or its agents and society. Corruption is thus a deviation from the norm of the legal-rational principle, as established by Max Weber. Till at least the mid-nineteenth century, public office was defined as private property in much of Western Europe, which could be mortgaged, passed on as a gift, or sold. It was only later and with the development of democracy that public office came to be seen as separate from private property. In Africa and South Asia, on the other hand, the entire legal framework was for the most part a legacy of endogenous colonialism. The question explored in this article is the usefulness of the private/public dichotomy for deciding corrupt behaviour in non-western contexts.