Bribery is something you must expect when travelling in Africa. Dealing with it an emotive subject to which everyone has their own view. Our view is that there are times when bribery is tolerable, sometimes even fun, but there are times, and in particular, techniques that are not. It’s a game, a gentlemanly pursuit even, where rules of engagement must be followed, opponents respected, and smiles exchanged. In many parts of Africa officials use bribes to supplement their meagre salaries, and we have heard of people who pay a bribe to get a particular job because the earning potential from extortion in that job is so high. It therefore came as no great shock when a policeman at the Lesotho border tried to extort a bribe from us by telling us that our vehicle has no Lesotho Disc and was in the country illegally. His demeanour and technique made it obvious that he had done it many times before. But he made mistakes. The first was that he was greedy. The second that he thought he could bully us into submission. But his biggest mistake was a poor understanding of appropriate etiquette.
I remember in North Africa the extortion came thick and fast, but always with a show and always polite. They smile and make you tea while shaking you down, but you always come away feeling that a fair transaction took place.
Unfortunately, this was not the case with this particular individual. After 40 minutes of sitting in the office of this ill-mannered ruffian, playing the game, pointing out the flaws in his argument in a gentlemanly manner, even offering him a fair price to leave immediately (which was impolitely declined), we decided his uncivilized behaviour and poor form required a stronger, more direct assault, and told him we were going to call our embassy. I got his name and explained that our embassy would sort this out with his supervisor. The lout called our bluff, grinning as he invited us to use his phone, a move I easily countered by informing him that I was not allowed to make the call in his presence, and picking up the various passports/ driver’s licences and other detritus of the battle we left for the car park to his protestations that “we’re not finished here”.
Having no money left on our only SIM we spoke into the dial tone, always making sure he could see us when he frequently put his head out of the door to check on progress. We stood confidently, defiantly even, occasionally making some notes in our book with the air of someone enjoying the view from the moral high ground. After only a few minutes he buckled. “Mr Fisher” he called across the car park, “please come back and we can discuss”.
He played his part well, but on that day he ultimately lost to a better contestant.
For my part I shook his hand on the way out and thanked him. Despite his ignorance in the subtleties of such matters, it was only fair that he be allowed to back down with dignity in front of his staff. After all, it’s important to remain a gentleman in these games.