Investigate and stop this mundane everyday corruption
Today GroundUp published a story, with the assistance of The Cape Times, of corruption at Lingelethu West Traffic Department in Khayelitsha. We tell how the buying of learner’s and driver’s licenses is commonplace and show that there is the perception, arguably a reasonable one in some areas, that a bribe is necessary to get a driver’s license.
Our story exposes a systemic problem, one that takes place mundanely everyday. It probably involves dozens of civil servants, middlemen and thousands of ordinary people who want their drivers’ licenses. During our investigation, we heard many anecdotes, most of which we did not print, that indicate that bribery for licenses occurs at other traffic stations, not just Khayelitsha’s.
In South Africa, like other middle-income countries with large disparities in wealth, it is hard for many people to escape living in the abject poverty of shacks and obtain material comfort. There is understandable desperation to get a job and to be more employable by getting a driver’s license. For many civil servants living in precarious, indebted, middle-class circumstances, often with fresh memories of having lived in shanty towns and wanting to avoid doing so again, soliciting bribes is extremely tempting. When a politician or big businessman like J Arther Brown steals money, the actions that need to be taken to achieve justice are usually obvious, even though they are often not carried out effectively. It is less obvious how to stop the kind of mundane everyday corruption of civil service bribes, but we must try.
Some economists believe that corruption helps improve the efficiency of developing country economies. For example, they argue that bribes lower the costs of bad regulations to people who want to do business, or get a job. The World Bank disputes this view, explaining that it encourages companies to pay bribes to get around good regulations too. It also points out that the cost of bribes falls more heavily on smaller companies and, we’d add, poorer people.
Once bribes become common practice, it’s difficult to eliminate them and corruption spreads to other parts of the civil service and becomes widely tolerated. It seems likely that this has already happened in South Africa.
There are no obvious benefits to licenses being bought and sold, but there are downsides. First it is expensive to have to pay a bribe for a license and as Mandla Majola points out in today’s article, people who cannot afford to pay bribes struggle to get their licenses because corrupt driving license testers refuse to pass them unless they pay up.
Second, there are also about 15,000 road deaths a year in South Africa. There are many more injuries and non-fatal accidents because of bad driving. Whether this is in large part caused by people who got their licenses illegally we do not know, but presumably the point of the driver’s license system is so that people only drive once they have proven they have essential driving skills. If bribery is widespread then whatever benefit there is to the licensing system evaporates.
Stopping this kind of corruption is hard. But a concerted effort has to be made. There must be an investigation. The main players in the traffic departments behind the buying and selling of traffic licenses must at minimum be dismissed, but ideally they and the middlemen on the outside should be prosecuted. Of course, it is possible that after getting rid of one layer of corrupt officials, a new group will take their place, so making government clean has to be an ongoing struggle.
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