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Are you witnessing corruption but don’t know what to do about it? Ask the team of Corruption Watch experts what to do by writing to: and mark your letter ‘Dear Corruption Watch’.
Dear Corruption Watch

When is a gift a bribe?

I am a fairly senior civil servant on a decision-making panel that awards procurement contracts. I have regular association with many of the service providers in my sector and have come to think of some as friends.

 Because my relationships are sometimes in a grey area, I wonder if accepting tickets to a sporting match, or even a bottle of good whisky, could be considered accepting a bribe? I occasionally reciprocate, though clearly I do not earn the kind of money some of my associates earn. Should I reject everything anyone I work with tries to give me, or should I trust my instincts and accept what I think was a gift between friends? – Yours sincerely, Gifted

Dear Gifted,

As the saying goes, “there is no free lunch”. This should be a mantra for someone in your position. As a civil servant involved in awarding contracts, you are obliged under the constitution and the Public Service Act to display a high standard of professional ethics, to perform your duties fairly and impartially and to be vigilant in guarding against corruption. The danger of accepting gifts from service providers in your sector, even if you consider them friends, is that you open yourself to possible corrupt practices.

Bribery and corruption occur when gifts, courtesies or other payments or hospitalities are offered or given to obtain an advantage – for instance, by persuading someone in your position to award a tender in that person’s favour. Corruption is a serious offence and can carry a penalty of life imprisonment.

You should be aware that the mere offering of a gift for corrupt purposes is an offence – even if the gift is declined. As a public official you must also comply with the code of conduct for the public service. This prohibits officials from using their positions to get private gifts or benefits for themselves through the performance of their official duties.

It also rules out accepting any gifts or benefits, as these may be construed as bribes. The code emphasises that gifts or items of monetary value from any person seeking official action from, doing business with, or conducting activities regulated by, the official’s duties, may only be accepted with the written approval of the head of department.

To avoid any difficulties, my advice is to follow the code of conduct. This means declining all gifts from people you work with as a general rule. Where you are certain that the gift is offered for an innocent reason (for instance, as a “thank you” for supporting a friend through marital troubles), or where cultural protocol demands that you accept the gift, you should get the written approval of your HOD.

I leave you to ponder the remarks of Judge Meyer Joffe on sentencing the former national police commissioner, who famously accepted gifts from a “friend”:

“Corruption can be likened to a cancer. It operates insidiously, destroying the moral fibre of the nation. When it is discovered the damage has already been done.

“Whilst the particular act of corruption may be excised, just as a malignancy may be removed in a surgical intervention, society is not what it was prior to the corrupt act. The roots of justice and integrity, so vital in a fair and democratic society, have been permanently scarred by the corrupt act.”


Take a stand and report an incident of corruption. This article originally appeared in the Sunday Times Business Times on 19 February 2012.

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