Complicity in corruption

While driving along a busy road an advert sponsored by LeadSA caught my attention. It read “Do the right thing, Don’t bribe a police officer” or some such. LeadSA is an obscure initiative by Primedia and Independent Newspapers which apparently supports good deeds done by South Africans – in a sort of lead by example sense. The website is incoherent and the message is confused, but they implicitly make a very good argument. Let me try to make it explicit.

Arriving home after a few years abroad two sorts of conversation caught my attention. The first is an old standard – that corruption at all levels in the public sector is hampering development of the country and increasing the wealth gap. This starts at well-publicised scandals of large projects which fail because some incompetent company received the tender due to bribery or nepotism, and ends at the anecdotal rumours about corruption of traffic officials preying on unsuspecting only-breaking-petty-law citizens.

There is a worrying hypocrisy present in those who both complain about the state of the nation and happily engage in easier-than-punishment bribery.

The second conversation was something I had never heard before: the discussion of technique for bribing officers and the boast of how little bribe was necessary to escape punishment for this or that offence. While part of me wanted to congratulate South Africans for embracing the ‘African Way’, another part of me raised a single eyebrow in judgement.

Famously, Plato describes how Socrates refused to escape from prison, for, although his imprisonment and death sentence was unjust, he did not wish to violate his principle of not responding to an injustice with a second wrong-doing. Socrates argued that disobeying single instances of injustice of an otherwise good government undermined the system as a whole and made it difficult for the government to continue to rule effectively. This position – and it is just one perspective on the matter – does not rule out the use of civil protest, but requires that it is not carried out in the form of breaking the law.

Bribing a police officer does not count as civil disobedience or protest. It’s much easier to make the argument that those who wish to live with a corruption free system should not engage in corrupt behaviour. There is a worrying hypocrisy present in those who both complain about the state of the nation and happily engage in easier-than-punishment bribery.

Corruption is a two way relationship, and although both parties might not always be convicted of the act due to irregularities in this or that aspect of criminal proceedings, the entire institution of under-the-counter negotiation is reinforced by citizens buying themselves out of legitimate punishment. Corruption is no longer a cockroach of the South African government and its public servants, but has organically infested business, illegal immigrants, petty drug users and irresponsible motorists.

I cannot say what action I would take given the option of genuine punishment or a quick-fix bribe, but the way I see it, those of us willing to cross the border of legal behaviour have exactly two options. The first option is that when you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, you go to jail, pay the fine, go through the legal proceedings. This is, after all, the way in which a functional penal system disincentivises anti-social and dangerous behaviour.

The other option is to accept the institution of corruption as a legitimate means of doing business. In which case, it should be embraced, monopolised. Entire economic and business models should be restructured to include the influence of corruption as a natural component. But, for Jacob’s sake, don’t then also complain about corruption. Don’t demonise those public officials who choose an option which apparently comes naturally to most of us.

Above all, don’t be too surprised when the traffic stops flowing, when family or friends are killed in accidents, or when organised criminals walk free after legal irregularities. The African outcome will not be determined by the competence of governance alone, but also on the willingness of its citizens to commit to a fair and structured, if slightly flawed, institution, and whatever consequences might follow.

  • Anon

    Interesting. While I agree that hypocrisy in and of itself is always offensive, I think that we should also be aware that corruption is a function of the underlying legal system and may be a perfectly rational means of circumventing unworkable rules. In this way, a rise in corruption may just be a signal that there need to be some adjustments to public policy. Distinguishing between the reasons for and the effects of particular acts of corruption means that people might engage in certain acts and criticise others without falling into the hypocrisy trap.

    Food for thought: http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2005/08/economics-of-corruption–posner.html

  • Chris

    Some people have the vocabulary to sum up things in a way you can understand them. This quote came from the Czech Republic.

    Someone over there has it figured out. We have a lot of work to do.

    “The danger to South Africa is not Jacob Zuma but a citizenry capable of entrusting a man like him with the Presidency.

    It will be far easier to limit and undo the follies of a Zuma presidency than to restore the necessary common sense and good judgment to a depraved electorate willing to have such a man for their president. The problem is much deeper and far more serious than Mr. Zuma, who is a mere symptom of what ails South Africa.

    Blaming the prince of the fools should not blind anyone to the vast confederacy of fools that made him their prince.

    The Republic can survive a Jacob Zuma, who is, after all, merely a fool. It is less likely to survive a multitude of fools such as those who made him their President.