Dear Corruption Watch,
Red tape is often a cover-up for corruption. I own a processing and exporting business. It seems I am always applying to renew various permits or paying this or that fee for a clerk to handle this or that document. Some of the permits seem to be arbitrarily withheld, costing me thousands of rands and damaging international relationships. I am afraid to protest because I am so dependent on these permits.
The government regulates many industries in South Africa. Often, this requires people to obtain permits or licences to conduct business.
There are important policy reasons behind these regulatory schemes. For example, in South Africa, export permits are required to ensure that exported goods comply with the provisions of international agreements and to prevent the outflow of stolen goods from the country. Regulating the sale and shipment of certain goods to overseas buyers will also assist local manufacturers to obtain raw materials before they are exported.
Obtaining these licences and permits can be frustrating. More importantly, in many cases the application process opens the door for corrupt officials to take advantage of people required to have a permit. Those who are dependent on these permits for their livelihoods are left feeling as if they have no choice but to become complicit in corrupt acts.
In some instances, instead of an outright demand for a bribe, officials make it known that, without a payment, the licence or permit will be refused — almost always on a technicality or for a spurious reason.
In any area of public administration, the discretion afforded to officials is necessary to allow decision-making flexible enough to take into account all the relevant circumstances. This discretion, however, can also create space for corruption. At the other end of the spectrum, rigid adherence to rules and procedures can be a cover for corruption -such as when permits are refused on technicalities solely because the official is seeking a bribe.
We should encourage all departments and boards to have a set of clear rules and procedures, a good deal of vigilance and as much transparency and participation as our constitution requires. This will ensure that discretion is exercised in acceptable ways and not abused.
Although it may be time-consuming or costly to obtain a permit, there are serious dangers in using corrupt means to bypass the legal system. Corruption Watch has reported cases in which public officials (or perhaps people posing as public officials) offer to secure licences for a fee. Once the money has been paid, the official disappears and the licence does not materialise. You may find yourself in a situation where you have paid far more than the legitimate fee and waited much longer than the usual turnaround time, not to mention the possibility of a criminal charge against you.
It is important to be properly informed about the statutory or regulatory requirements for a permit, as well as the relevant fees to prevent you from unwittingly becoming a victim of corruption. Keep a record of correspondence with officials and always request a receipt for payment. Never accept short cuts. This compromises the system and fuels corruption.
If an official deliberately delays or refuses an application for no reason, it is often possible to appeal the decision to the overseeing administrative body. In some instances, it is also possible to bring a review application in the courts if you think the decision was made arbitrarily or informed by ulterior motives.
Alternatively, you can approach Corruption Watch and register a complaint online.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times