By Zola Valashiya

Our socialisation conditions us to be law-abiding citizens. Generally, the majority of South Africans are. Despite the crime rate, despite reports of the blatant looting of public resources by politicians, many of us still remain and aspire to be the model citizen.

In a country like ours, where corruption is rife, I find it remarkable that we retain a great degree of moral fortitude. For this I applaud the average citizen. It’s not as if we are somehow magically immune to corruption, or possess an infallible god complex or effortlessly resolve moral and ethical dilemmas with seamless rational clarity. But there is something within us, initially, that offers a dutiful resistance against unscrupulous behaviours.

We are confronted, almost daily, with moral, ethical and legal temptations that threaten to unravel our own sense of truth, fairness and justice; and the raison d’etre for our continued belief in these ideals which underlie the motives of our corresponding behaviour. This daily resistance is what is required of the average citizen in order to uphold the pillars of our democratic society. There is an internal ‘push’ that wells up within us when we see or experience injustice or unfairness and our spidey-sense tingles when detecting dishonesty.

However, truthfully, at times we lose the day’s battle – not without a fight of course. For most, this results in a bit of internal discomfort, albeit momentarily, where a series of psychological pangs remind us that we’ve done something wrong – even when done for a good reason.

I can think of no better circumstance where this happens – and perhaps one that is widely shared – than when a traffic officer stops me for an ‘apparent’ driving violation. As I bring the car to a halt at the officer’s instruction, on Katherine Street in Sandton one Sunday morning, I have already performed a mental checklist of my conduct. Is my seatbelt on? Yes. Do I have my license? Yes. Was I speeding? No. Was I drinking? No. Alright then, roadblocks of this sort seem fairly standard and frequent, all I have to do is comply and I’ll be on my way.

As my window winds down to reveal the officer’s face and badge, I cheerfully greet him – slightly conceited in my righteousness – with the cliché: “What seems to be the problem, officer?” A stern face responds with a tone of voice that seems to have already convicted me of crimes committed.

His words are clearer in uttering these convictions. “You know what your fault is right? You know what you did wrong?” he rhetorically asks. Bewildered, I respond: “Fault? What did I do wrong?” I even begin to doubt myself about the basic incontrovertible facts. Was I drinking? Is my seatbelt not on properly? Was I speeding? But nothing was wrong.

The officer says: “You cannot talk on the phone while driving.” I smile at the pure absurdity and respond: “I don’t even have my phone in this car.” The officer, now irate, retorts: “Oh! Do you want me to list all your transgressions?” At this stage I knew what this was, it was the classic street-side hold-up. He continues: “Come, you’re going to jail.” He walks away briefly to allow me to stew in the fear of the threat of imprisonment unless I come to my senses about how to ‘amicably’ resolve this impasse.

His cue to return, I suppose, would be my frantic scratching for a note of two to offer in order to buy back my freedom. His patience runs out and he marches straight back to my window expectantly, confidently awaiting his booty. He prompts: “So… Uthini ndoda?” [So… what now, man?].

In feigned humility and averting my eyes (a sign of respect in African culture) I whimper: “I don’t have anything on me.” “Heh!” he hollers, “You can’t be driving a nice car like this and not have anything.” I start to negotiate my way out of this (like I negotiated some of my property back from three muggers a month ago in Braamfontein, Johannesburg). I say to him: “I live just around the corner…” – probably not a good idea telling him where I live – “…let me go home and grab something for you and I’ll be back.” I could sense his agitation and reluctance to let me go because he believed I was having him, but he had no choice and I had not violated any laws and thus he had no legal justification to detain me. He caves and says: “Alright, I’ll trust you, young man, go and come back quickly! I’ll be here.”

I drive off with a big sigh, happy to have escaped this ordeal unscathed. But there was a lasting impression. Have things gotten so bad that traffic officers brazenly stop you and threaten to imprison you on fabricated charges? The uniform, white and orange vehicle and blue lights should symbolise law and order – where was it? The citizens of this country have vested public trust in this and other organs of State and public power is used to victimise the very same citizens. Surely this is an unjust state of affairs!

The psychological trauma of my experience was subtle but present. I noticed it in the anxiety of my voice as I was explaining to my flatmate what happened. I even considered going back to the traffic officer because I feared for my safety and didn’t want to be continuously victimised (I noticed him writing down my number plates as I pulled off). My flatmate had to remind me that I have done nothing wrong, and he is the one on the wrong side of the law. This is the everyday dilemma the average citizen goes through.

I work at an NGO called Corruption Watch and on a daily basis we receive reports of corruption very similar to my experience. Many, however, aren’t as lucky as I was to safely escape. The dilemma presented is: do I stand up to this scoundrel and fight for what is right, as my internal convictions compel me to do? Or do I concede, and prioritise my own safety or at the very least, the inconvenience of temporary imprisonment (not to mention the embarrassment and negative perceptions) even if the charges wouldn’t stick?

These are very real considerations that reporters have faced. In the newspapers, there are stories of people who have been victimised for refusing to pay a bribe. One runs the risk of being assaulted, unlawfully detained or – heavens forbid – sexually assaulted for doing what we believe to be right.

This crystallises the existential question: Do I pay the bribe? I must also consider this question in my professional capacity and working in a department that deals directly with the public, we cannot officially endorse the view to pay the bribe, but at the same time we cannot ask the public to put their own lives in danger and ‘fight the good fight’.

In a personal capacity, anecdotes of people I have spoken with have told me of how they just do it. In some cases, words aren’t even exchanged, you just pin your currency underneath your driver’s license as you hand it to the officer. In one instance a mother told me that her children were used against her to leverage patronage. This is disheartening. Their complicity is not voluntary or even a result of apathy for local affairs. It’s the result of the constant corrosion of the internal moral and ethical ideals of truth, justice and fairness, that we now believe in – just a little bit less.

Zola Valashiya is based in Johannesburg and currently works at Corruption Watch. He is a law graduate from the University of the Free State and undertook a Masters in Law as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar at the same university. He studied public policy and public administration with the School of Public Policy at the Central European University, Budapest. Zola also runs his own non-profit called Debate Afrika, which uses debate and public speaking as tools for education and youth development.

Zola Valashiya