If you had to choose between paying a bribe or going to jail, what would you pick? Would you refuse to pay a bribe if it would secure you a job, help obtain the long-awaited identity document or get you a driver’s licence?
These questions are based on everyday challenges and they directly challenge the moral compass of individuals and society who seek to answer them.
At the centre of the reported high levels of corruption in South Africa lies the act of bribery, which has comfortably settled as a norm in our society. One reason for the propensity for bribery is that it can often appear to be the only practical solution. The bribe-taker gains economically while the bribe-giver conveniently attains their immediate or important wants or needs. The outcome is a win-win one.
Yet, what seems to be “oiling the wheels” of our survival is exactly what scrapes away at the roots that hold our society together. The notion that bribery is beneficial should be utterly rejected if we are going to win against corruption in South Africa.
Corruption Watch, a civil society organisation formed to investigate and speak out against corruption, has launched a campaign against bribery. This launch is accompanied by a report on corruption in the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD). It details the bribery experiences of drivers at the hands of the JMPD. It is significant for several reasons:
l The Joburg metro police operate in the wealthiest, most populous, and most car-congested city in the country.
With their high visibility, the JMPD are most likely to be the first line of law enforcement that many people encounter on a daily basis as they travel in private cars and taxis around the city.
They are expected to protect and promote the law.
Instead, as the Corruption Watch report shows, they have a solid reputation for soliciting or accepting “itjo-tjo” – the term for bribery used in township lingo. This erodes the public’s trust in the police but also in the government.
l When bribery is committed by those in positions of public authority, a clear message is sent that it is “okay” to undermine the rule of law. Worse, is if those who are caught with their fingers in the till are not called to book.
With the respect for the law lost, the most integral values also dissipate slowly.
l Bribery is disloyalty and a violation of ethical duty. Its consequences are far reaching when those whom society has entrusted with power and authority betray the trust.
The moral fabric of our society should be guarded jealously. This does not just lie on the shoulders of public officials in the government. It is the responsibility of each individual.
For instance, there are those who consider themselves law abiding citizens and repudiate corruption.
Yet, they would not flinch at paying a bribe.
There are also parents and adults who unashamedly teach children to bribe as an easy way out of a difficult situations or as the quickest route to acquiring wealth.
Such actions fly in the face of efforts to raise a generation of visionary leaders who are grounded by strong moral values.
I stand with Socrates in believing that all that is worthwhile in life – the flourishing of individuals within a flourishing society – does not come through the naked pursuit of power, status and wealth. Rather, it is by expending resources in virtuous living that we will achieve what is truly valuable – and indeed, sustainable economic benefits will also flow.
We should be very concerned when those who are meant to uphold the law are in the front line of law breakers; when those who are meant to empower our children to deal with what is moral are, by their conduct, communicating precisely the wrong values. We are sowing the seed of our own destruction when those who are meant to ensure that the disadvantaged are housed, that their health is taken care of and that their minimum requirements are provided, are using those resources to enrich themselves.
If we are committed to reversing the downward spiral of corruption, there are certain values that are essential and should never be allowed to wither.
These are values of fairness, honesty, trust, accountability, integrity, and transparency.
It is when we can uphold these values while observing the spirit of Ubuntu – “I am because you are” – can we truly begin to shift the tide towards the common good. For this to happen, we must ask: how much of our selves are we willing to give?
How far are we willing to go to stand for truth?
In the present era of hunger and greed for money, it is easy to dismiss some of these basic tenets of a morally grounded society. But, old wisdom has repeatedly shown that we weaken each time we turn away from our core values.
To fight corruption effectively, the institutions that have been traditionally associated with the formation of conscience must play an active role in inculcating moral and ethical values. These are schools, family, community and religious institutions.
No doubt, the gains to be made from fighting corruption outweigh the superficial benefits of paying a bribe.