There will be no pictures accompanying this post, as I just had my first experience having to pay off a cop. I know this is how it works sometimes in RSA, as well as India and other developing nations (and maybe on a more subtle and sophisticated scale in the US) but I have never actually been faced with choosing between bribing a cop or going to jail. I can say that afterwards I feel a combination of disgust for myself, the system, and the cops as well as relief that I’m not sitting in a South African jail like I was being threatened with.
I had just dropped P off to work and drove past a check point they had set up on Rivonia Road, when a policewoman motioned for me to pull over. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, I guess I thought maybe they were checking for unpaid fines, after all I hadn’t done anything wrong. She asked me for my license, which I gave her. I was trying to act cheerful and a bit ditzy so that she might let me go on my way.
She told me I was required to carry my passport on my person at all times and if I couldn’t produce it she would arrest me and take me to the police station.Whoa, I said I didn’t have it but I would call my husband and we would figure it out, he would bring it to me (he obviously didn’t even have a car, but I was getting scared). She asked how long it would take, I said 45 minutes or so and she said that was too long and she was going to take me to the police station. Then, she looked around my car and said the registration sticker is expired. Our car is still the one hired by P’s company…it is owned by Hertz! How was I supposed be responsible for Hertz’s registration stickers?? She said she didn’t know but I was going to have to pay for it after going to jail.
Two other policemen wandered over then, one was encouraging her to take me to the station the other was inspecting my wallet with his eyes- it was sitting in my lap since I just taken out my license. I have been given much advice on how and when to bribe a cop here, but I couldn’t imagine how in the world I could possibly do it, it seemed so wrong and beneath the dignity of the cops. I told them to let me call my husband, I told P my situation and that I wasn’t sure what to do. Since it was impossible for him to bring me my passport as I had been suggesting (or at least 1000rands worth of cab rides), he suggested asking them if there was any other way to resolve it as they were openly showing interest in my wallet. How, I asked? Ask them if they wanted money? I was also uncomfortable because I didn’t want to open my wallet and show them how much cash I had, as I had just gone to the ATM. As if sensing this, one of the male cops asked to talk to P. I handed him my phone and struggled to discreetly pull 50 rands from my wallet while they weren’t looking. P said he made inane conversation, asking him if the car was a rental (I had told them that it was) and whether P had a job (I had just told them he was at work).
Now, the hard part…I was thinking to myself: how in the world am I going to approach this? Shall I ask her if there is another way to resolve this and show her some money? How much would be enough? Well I needn’t have worried, because as soon as she saw the cash she wordlessly took it from my hand and deposited my license in my palm and looked at me like I was a bit slow, that this whole thing could have been over 5 minutes ago. After it was over I was staring at my empty hand, wondering what just happened. Then she cheerfully helped me pull out into traffic again. I felt so indignant, and so mad at myself and at the police.
There are a lot of systemic failures which lead to this literal give and take with the cops and the population of this country. Next time I will do a few things differently: 1) I will have a certified copy of my passport. 2) Our car will not have an expired registration sticker (though this wasn’t our fault) 3) If I have time, I’ll just insist that she take me to jail which, as a friend pointed out, she won’t do.
50 rands is nothing (about 6USD), and actually I’ve heard of people paying off the cops with biltong ( South African dried meat) or chips or a bottle of Coke. I prefer hearing stories where the cops did their job (which there are a lot of) and feel like keeping out of the driver’s seat for a few days. As they say, T.I.A. (This is Africa!).