Opinion piece by Valencia Talane
A recent chat with a friend confirmed for me the role individual attitudes play in the escalation of societal ills such as corruption. I had called the friend to check on him and found out he had just been to court with a cousin of his.
Intrigued at the news that he’d been at court, I went on to ask what that was about. The cousin, it turns out, had been involved in an unfortunate incident just weeks before. In fact, the reason he was in court was that he had fled the scene of the accident after knocking down and slightly injuring a 12-year-old boy. A quick-thinking witness got his car’s registration number and alerted the police. Had he been drinking at the time? I asked, only to get this response: “Obviously. You have to be really stupid, or really drunk to just run like that.”
What he shared next shocked me. His cousin’s lawyer seemed to be hinting for a settlement of sorts with the family of the victim. Some kind of “facilitation fee” was apparently spoken of, said my friend, and if his cousin could raise it, he might not even need to come back to court again. The cousin was actually considering it.
“Are you talking about an out-of-court-settlement?” was my response. Sensing that I was either being ignorant or sarcastic, my friend, irritated, simply replied: “Look, I don’t know what’s going down. All I know is that he may have been told to consider it.”
It's only corruption if you're caught
I guess I will never know the details of this arrangement or if the cousin will go for it, because our conversation ended at the point where many conversations with people I know do. The assumption is that because I work for Corruption Watch, conversations such as this one always hinge on the moral and ethical obligation I have to correct attitudes on issues such as paying for favours, regardless of the context of the situation.
If he goes on to bribe his way out of the looming trial, my friend’s cousin is only adding another decision to a pattern that has plagued the events since the hit and run. He chose to run and not check the extent of the child’s injuries; he chose to avoid getting himself arrested for possibly having had too much to drink and might now choose to again use a power vested in him by his lawyer to pay his way out of a potential criminal record or even jail sentence.
“I shouldn’t have said anything, but then I don’t even know if the guy is going to go through with it or not,” my friend explained through the awkwardness that now hung over our conversation. “Some people think of the consequences of not doing that [paying bribes] as opposed to the consequences of doing it.”
How true this is – not just of “some” people but many, many people.
Perhaps fear forced the cousin to run when he realised what had happened. Mob attacks are not an uncommon consequence of hit-and-run incidents in many townships, especially if the motorist is under the influence of alcohol. But there remained an opportunity to go to the police, which he did not use. Nothing in the sequence of events tells me that he will go against the seemingly easier route of bribing his way back to freedom.
The problem with this and other cases like it is the attitude of those involved. As long as there is a benefit – or the opportunity to avoid the jail, as long as no-one gets caught, we’re good.
Corruption Watch receives many cases from people desperate for help to change systems that cripple basic services and infringe on the rights of millions. From those who have to bribe their way to the front of the queue in a provincial hospital’s crowded casualty ward; to the desperate asylum seekers who pay for services that should be free at refugee centres; to taxi drivers who are victimised by metro police officers on a daily business. It takes big mindset changes to solve the problem of entitlement bought with cash.
Over the next few months Corruption Watch will be embarking on a drive aimed at exactly that: changing mindsets and starting the fight at individual level. It is not up to me to divulge more than this, but the watch this space nonetheless.
A bribe can take any form
A bribe does not have to be a hefty fee that eliminates competitors in a bidding war for services or tenders. As witnessed in a recent Durban Labour Court judgement, a gift as seemingly insignificant as a packet of biscuits is enough to put an end to a public official’s career, with costly consequences.
A home affairs official, Mathato Mokhele, took a packet of biscuits from a client who expected faster, preferential treatment in return. She was fired for misconduct and has fought her dismissal since 2007 through arbitration means and later ending it at the Labour Court.
Although court records show that Mokhele expressed remorse for her actions in statements and promised that if reinstated she would not do it again, the court decided that it is not the amount or value of the bribe that counts, but the act of dishonesty. Public servants are trusted to work diligently and serve members of the public with integrity. For that integrity to be compromised, there needs to be opportunity to unduly enrich oneself, such as is the case with a bribe offer or request. The decision made then – to take/offer or not to take/offer a bribe, rests on the moral standing of the person involved and the likelihood of getting caught for the deed.
A pair of Johannesburg metro police officers suffered a similar fate to that of Mokhele in recent weeks. They were removed from their regular duties and stripped of their uniform, pending an investigation into allegations that they took bribes from motorists in the suburb of Westdene.
The spokesperson for the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), Wayne Minnaar, said the two had been “taken out of uniform and transferred to do administrative duties" while the allegations are probed. He further said a "due disciplinary process" would follow. "[The] JMPD does not tolerate corruption."
Corruption is a two-way street
It begs the question, if the JMPD does not tolerate corruption, then why should the motorists who participated in the corrupt act of giving the officers money, to avoid being ticketed, get away with it?
Trust is rapidly eroding between members of the public and those tasked with serving them. If I trust that a public servant will carry out their duty as prescribed by the code of conduct that governs his office, I need not help “facilitate” efficient service that is a requirement of the Constitution of the country they serve.
On the flip side of that, I as a member of the public have to exhibit the respect and trust for rule of law and government systems that public servants have to abide by, in order to achieve the efficient service to which I am entitled.
It is my hope that my friend’s cousin will not attempt to bribe his way out of a system that should aim to fairly try and discipline people who make errors of judgment daily. Even more importantly, I hope that the family of his young victim is not guilty of assuming that they would be justified in participating in the dishonest practice of accepting a bribe to make the trial go away.