African systems built for corruption – What if we all refused to pay bribes?

By Ranga Mberi

HIDDEN in the pile of words and figures that made up the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority’s quarterly report last week was a poignant admission by its chair, Willia Bonyongwe.

Tip offs from the public, Bonyongwe said, had unearthed corruption running into millions.

“The anti-corruption hotline has been a source of valuable information and it unearthed several cases of corruption that yielded potential revenue of more than US$23 million,” Bonyongwe said.

Just to get a sense of how much this is for ZIMRA, it is about half the amount the authority got from customs duty over three months.

What was most telling was Bonyongwe musing on what needs to be done to stop people from stealing.

“Part of it involves automation but a great deal has to do with changing the mindset of the people and the culture in the Authority,” she said.

In other words, if we cannot have incorruptible machines doing the job, let us change our people’s minds. And that – changing minds – is where the steepest climb in fighting corruption is.

When people have been so used to paying and accepting bribes for so long that it has become more of a culture than isolated incidence, fixing the problem becomes a tough task.

Today, walking into ZIMRA offices, you meet staff members in T-shirts inscribed with the bold words “I am not corrupt” across their chests. It makes for great optics. Sadly, T-shirts alone can hardly change a culture.

The problem lies in bureaucracy, most of which, across Africa, is deliberately created. Those in charge of official processes make it hard for ordinary people to do even the simplest things; getting a birth certificate, crossing a border, submitting a form.

God help you if you are driving down a highway with one headlamp slightly dimmer than the other. In no time, you will have a very eager constable with half his body in your car, asking you for drink money so he can let you go.

In the end, we pay bribes so we can cut through the red tape deliberately placed in front of us.

Take, for instance, Beitbridge border post – the busy gateway between South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is the region’s busiest port, reportedly handling an average of 14,000 travellers and 600 haulage trucks per day.

According to one recent report, 95 percent of cargo transported in the region by road is delayed by up to three days at Beitbridge, the effect of this is that it raises transport costs by about $500 per truck per day. The congestion results in $200 million loss in production, tourism traffic and revenue annually.

All this congestion is a massive inconvenience to travellers and businesses. However, it is paradise for the corrupt.

They know which hurdles make you desperate. The more desperate you become to clear them, the more you are likely to cough up “drink money” to get it over with.

It is a culture. We have come to believe nothing can be done in a government office without someone getting something. It is a serious problem all over Africa.

According to a 2015 Transparency International survey, 22 percent of Africans who had contact with public services admitted to having paid a bribe over the year. In Liberia, the figure was 69 percent. In Kenya and Nigeria, it was 37 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

The cost is huge. It remains very hard to ascertain just how much corruption costs. Transparency International’s corruption index is much loved by the media, but its “name and shame” approach is hardly based on hard facts, but on perception.

Still, it cannot be denied that there is a cost.

As Bonyongwe herself put it, even the most resilient economies can only take so much corruption.

“Often it has been said the economy is resilient but I contend that it can no longer withstand the current levels of corruption,” she says.

It will take an effort of epic proportions to shift us from our ways. It may take us, as citizens, simply refusing to pay bribes. It will be hard – refuse to pay a traffic cop a bribe and be left to bake in the roadside sun for hours.

But it must be done. It may be a while before Africans can afford the “automation” Bonyongwe says may solve many problems. For now, we must deal with people. However corrupt they are, we must simply refuse to play ball.

Last week, winding down her days in office, South Africa’s public protector Thuli Madonsela said it best: “Just because we deal with underhanded people, it doesn’t mean we too should be underhanded.”