Dear Corruption Watch: Coverage of the showdown between the former head of the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission and the minister of trade and industry glossed over the “grease payments” she was trying to stamp out.

People are often required, when registering their businesses, to pay an extra “fee” to a “runner” who takes the application through the system. It seems that this fee is shared with a commission official, effectively for providing something to which the member of the public is entitled as opposed to a straight bribe for something he or she is not entitled. Both seem increasingly necessary to get officials to act. How do we avoid this corrupt extortion?

At a loss

Dear Loss,

The Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (the CIPC) was established in terms of the Companies Act to function as an organ of state within the public administration, but outside the public service. It plays a vital role in the registration of companies and corporate names and among business rescue practitioners, maintaining data, regulating governance and disclosure by companies, accrediting dispute resolution agents, and educating and informing the public about all laws relating to companies.

It must perform its functions impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.

In the spat you allude to, the head of the CIPC described ‘illicit activities with intermediaries and demands for bribes’. This conduct and the conduct you mention in your question is inimical for an institution that is in the public administration and which is required to function in accordance with the values and principles of the Constitution. These include promoting and maintaining a high level of professional ethics and providing services impartially, fairly, and equitably and without bias.

Not only does the Companies Act prohibit CIPC employees from engaging in any activity that may undermine the integrity of the commission, but it also turns its attention to persons dealing with CIPC officials by making it an offence for a person to improperly attempt to influence the CIPC when it is performing a power in terms of the act.

When regard is had to what the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act defines as the general offence of corruption, the fact that the kind of corruption you describe differs from the bribes public servants get is of no real consequence.

CIPC logoPaying a ‘fee’ to a CIPC official to, for instance, get him to effect a registration of your business to which you may already be entitled involves the giving and accepting of a gratuity in order to influence a person to act in a manner that amounts to the violation of a legal duty or an abuse of a position of authority, and is an improper inducement.

The discourse around rooting out corrupt activities in the public sector often loses sight of the reality that they involve an official who requires a bribe and a member of the public willing to pay it.

All steps to eradicate it must involve consumers of public services knowing that when we offer bribes to public officials, whether or not it is for benefits to which we may already be entitled, we implicate ourselves in criminal behaviour; and that we have a choice not to do so; and a responsibility to report such instances.