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Bribery, the real costs

By Anthea Paelo

The other day the taxi I was riding in was stopped by a policeman. Not an unusual event in itself. Neither was the exchange of money that happened afterwards. What was strange, at least for me, was the policeman’s method of request. Upon stopping the taxi, he did not bother to pretend to ask for a driver’s licence or check for broken headlights, he asked the driver politely for some money to buy lunch. The driver later remarked that it was probably the easiest bribe he had ever had to pay.

This incident came to mind during a recent dialogue organised by the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars and hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The discussion revolved around ethical leadership, a relevant topic given the recent media exposure on President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla residence or the recent Tongaat mall tragedy.

Right at the beginning of the Conversations of Change dialogue the obviously seasoned facilitator, Gavin Price, a lecturer at the institute, asked an important question: “How many people believe they are ethical?” Curiously, about 80% of the attendants raised their hands. That is until we actually began to speak about what ethical leadership looked like. In the process, some common truths came to life.

The Oxford English dictionary defines ethics as the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or activity. The attendants also agreed that being ethical means having certain basic characteristics: integrity, compassion, humility and excellence. There must be a willingness to sacrifice one’s comfort, one’s position and one’s lifestyle in some cases if one is to be truly ethical. It also means staying true to the values one believes in. It is true that those values often change depending on context and background, and that what may be ethical for one person may not be for another. Community and societal values often define what an individual’s ethics are. Therefore, if a certain level of ethics is accepted in a community (for instance, if it is generally accepted that paying an extra R2 000 to easily obtain a driver’s licence is the norm), then that is what will be seen in the community.

One of the attendants of the dialogue put it more succinctly: “Corruption only persists because there are enablers.”

In one way or another, we contribute to the corruption we claim to be fighting, whether it is by paying that extra R2 000 to get a driver’s licence or providing the traffic officer with the R10 he requests to buy lunch. If we continue to perpetuate corruption in our own lives it seems somewhat hypocritical to ask for a higher level of ethics from our leaders.

But of course, there are those who believe that the level of ethics we expect from our leaders should be different because they have been given a position of responsibility and power. The truth, however, is that being ethical many times requires a level of sacrifice that most people are not prepared to give. Giving an officer a small amount of money is easier and more convenient than paying a ticket at a later stage and many consider it much cheaper to pay extra for a licence than to have to wait for a new testing date if we fail.

If we were to be completely honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that the people who offer small bribes are our friends, spouses, and even our parents. And sometimes we are the ones who offer the bribes. But it is easier to demand crucifixion of strangers than to demand accountability from ourselves. And so we continue discussions on how to get rid of corruption and continue to point fingers, exclaim over pictures of the president’s residence, sharing them rapidly on social networks because he should be ethical. He should be thinking of the people he governs.

It is easy to justify this bias. Our actions are not big enough to affect anyone else. For people in public office however, it is a different matter. Perhaps our community has the type of ethical behaviour it deserves. Maybe by allowing our own small indiscretions, we are giving others permission to make even bigger ones. Perhaps the high level of corruption in the country should not come as a surprise, and if we are looking to blame someone, maybe we should look no further than ourselves.

At the end of the Conversations for Change dialogue, Price asked again, “How many people believe that they are ethical?” The number of people who raised their hands had reduced significantly. It was now only about 20%.

Anthea Paelo is a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar. She is currently completing her master’s degree in development economics with the University of Johannesburg. Anthea is a lover of words. Her short story “Picture Frames” won the 2013 Writivist of the Year Award.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Mina Mina 3 December 2013

    Was it a bribe if the officer did not mention an infringement, but simply asked for money for lunch? Is that not just a request from one person to another? Yes, I know the implied meaning of stopping the taxi, but I’m wondering how this will stand up in a court of law.

  2. So naive.... So naive.... 3 December 2013

    A few years ago i took my ex husband to the hospital – it was a state hospital. The nurses there asked me for “cooldrink” and assured me that they would look after him nicely. I was little confused but said I would bring them cooldrink with the next visit. I bought a 2 litre bottle and took it with me when next I visited. When I gave it to them they were completely gobsmacked and looked at me as if I had falle out of a tree. I couldn’t understand why. I only found out much later that the had been asking for a bribe! Still have a laugh about that one….

  3. aim for the culprits aim for the culprits 3 December 2013

    Thanks, please also include “cash jobs” and tax evasion in the guise of avoidance and i think even the 20% will melt away considerably.

    That said, if the leader is completely ethical, there is a flow on effect; same for when he isn’t.

  4. Pius Pius 3 December 2013

    Every country in the world has a government that is corrupt but the degree of corruption is what make them different. Do government officials divert funds and leave almost nothing for what the funds are actually supposed to do (build new roads, build hospitals, buy ARV’s for a countries increasing HIV rate) or do they provide these services to its people and make use of what is left. I think this is the distinction between developed countries and third world countries and thus the realistic ethical scale we have in this world. Im not saying a support corruption of any kind but if someone is heartless enough to take money that is meant to help people living in extreme poverty or to provide better education to a countries children, i would rather have a government that provides the services even up to a 70 percent level and takes the rest.

  5. proactive proactive 3 December 2013

    After stumbling over a naively sounding R 10 “Ubuntu” request for lunch by a traffic cop- I had to smile! Must have been around 1995 when these kind of shares where traded on the streets of SA? Ever heard about inflation and rise in brazenness entering ever deeper into the many crevices of our brotherly BEE life?

    Surely, there are many who could tell all kind of interesting stories- one encounters in daily life and other adventures, spending around 80,000 km/year on our roads. Academics safely theorize about ethics sheltered within the halls of institutions- still safe from a real life tsunami.

    One needs to be exposed to cops who make it their regular business to augment their income by threatening you with immediate arrest- do not pass home- go straight to jail and miss all future commitments? Encounter all the road- unworthy vehicles and illegally licensed drivers. Every safe return and another day of survival would justify a celebration with a pilgrimage to Lourdes or Mecca!

    The erosion of these virtues has many origins! Only the consequences are daily headlines. Abuse, disrespect, corruption, theft, rape of anything, be it honesty, dignity, integrity, woman, children, babies, housebreaking, ransacking, robberies, hijacking or murders. Every act is feeding one or other uncontrollable desire- sexual, drugs, greed or just survival. “Comrade Nanny and human rights” have taken over parental authority, experimenting with coming generations- as is done with education.

  6. michael michael 4 December 2013

    So naive,
    According to Anthea you corrupted those nurses and were unethical.You have made innocent people to behave unethically.

  7. Hubbe Hubbe 4 December 2013

    Well said. Would love it if people write more on defining ethics and even study to see what South African ethic standard is compared to the rest of the world.

  8. Lindsay Lindsay 4 December 2013

    I remember hearing Gavin Woods on the radio saying that out of every 10 people one was totally corrupt, one was totally incorrupt and incorruptable and the remaining 8 could go either way….

  9. Pieter Pretorius Pieter Pretorius 4 December 2013

    The trolly guy at a shop asked me for a loaf of bread as I entered the shop. Fortunately he did not wear a traffic cop badge.
    Without any absolute authority figure, everybody does what is right in his/her own eyes. Then paying R2000 in the process of getting your driver’s licencene becomes the norm. So believe Mr Maleme when he says he does not steal from the poor. They have nothing to steal. Taking the money that they should get is the norm. So he is a honest guy.

  10. Walter Walter 4 December 2013

    Policemen, nurses, teachers – treat them ethically in providing professional training and adequate professional salaries. Ethics is a luxury not everyone can afford. Our moaning about corruption gets us nowhere. One of the root causes of corruption is loss or absence of dignity. Can it be found again where and when it was lost? Once restored, I might have good cause to defend it.

  11. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 5 December 2013

    A few years back, a young friend told us the story of her ordeal. She is a radiologist and works at a state hospital. Coming home from shift (about 4am), she was stopped by two cops who wanted ‘cooldrinks’. She didn’t even have her purse with her – just her house keys and her radiology badge. They proceeded to break her headlights and threaten to lock her up if she didn’t pay. There were other ‘means of paying’ suggested too. Eventually, she went home, got her card, drew money and paid them. Not because she was corrupt but because she couldn’t handle the idea of being locked up or raped. Would you consider that corruption or survival?

  12. suntosh suntosh 9 December 2013

    Nice piece Anthea.

    We need to an everyday culture of ethical interactions. How do we enable that?

  13. Anthea Anthea 11 December 2013

    It is tough having to weight the needs of the people and ethics and to some extent we might agree that ethics is a luxury the poor can ill afford, at the same time, if we want to reduce corruption, we must start somewhere and with things within our control. It might for instance, while driving alone at night, it might be wiser to give the policeman money at night but what if we made use of the anonymous lines to report corruption. Perhaps take note of the number plates of the car. We need to start somewhere.

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