Publication: Business Day Date: 2004-10-25 Reporter: Madlala

Thin Line between Bribery and African Culture of Gift-Giving



Business Day

Date 2004-10-25



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If there is one thing the Schabir Shaik trial may clear up for me it is what constitutes bribery in the context of what I grew up to accept as a way of life, certainly in this great kingdom of kwaZulu-Natal.

It is not just that when our leaders hit bad patches in life we have to be there for them, but also many poor people I know would rather sleep on an empty stomach but contribute handsomely to the purchase of a brand new car for their minister of religion or even a trade union leader.

I remember many years ago a trade union in the sugar industry was led by a flamboyant man who imported very expensive limousines to drive to visit workers in remote areas of the province. Many nongovernmental organisations and trade unions occupied tiny, cramped spaces in the outskirts of the Durban central business district. This unionist had expensively furnished offices in one of the city's tallest buildings. When he was prosecuted for misappropriating union funds many ordinary members were genuinely confused and angry: as it was their money their leader was using and they had no objection why should it have mattered to anybody else?

Similarly, while the kingdom of God is for the poor, no self-respecting congregation will not contribute handsomely to buy a new vehicle for their priest. When bishops visit, they are honoured with gifts that could range from sheep and groceries to thousands of rand.

As they are only doing their work, for which many are paid anyway, why should poor people feel obliged to shower them with expensive gifts? Many who are not familiar with this way of life find it strange, to say the least. They would be even more puzzled if they understood that the receiver of such gifts may not decline them, regardless of how embarrassed he could be about taking from the poor when he has more to spare.

But then many white madams in the suburbs have never understood why their poor maids and garden boys save to buy an ox for a feast to which a village is invited and the following day there is no bread on the table. Can one give so generously unless there is something in return down the line?

I think the answer will explain partially why Deputy President Jacob Zuma will remain popular, certainly in kwaZulu-Natal, despite the revelations in the Shaik trial. It may not necessarily follow that what in the eyes of the law constitutes bribery or corruption is not regarded as pure generosity in the form of giving gifts.

I deliberately chose the example of my trade unionist friend and ministers of religion to illustrate the point about this culture of giving gifts. I could have used the example of what happens when the king or chiefs visit their subjects.

Before the democratic election in 1994 the issue of these gifts became a political bone of contention.

There were suggestions that communities were coerced to donate money when important people visited. That could have been the case, but it happened because it would be unthinkable for a visitor to leave "emptyhanded", as it were.

And so what should happen with our politicians?

Virtually every weekend a political leader is given a sheep in kwaZulu-Natal. I suppose the register in Parliament reflects this.

But not everybody is given a sheep.

I remember distinctly that after the unbanning of political organisations in the early 1990s, comrades in the townships went out of their way to welcome the leadership and make everybody comfortable.

Those who had the best cars and houses made them available to reception committees that co-ordinated these events. Shop owners provided groceries and vanloads of breyani, while other dishes were prepared by sympathisers who regarded these as their humble contributions to the struggle.

Needless to say, not everybody contributed a pot of breyani or a bag of maize. Those who could afford dug into deeper pockets and donated substantial sums of money that eased the burden of life for the leaders who had just returned from exile.

I don't know what the receiver of revenue would make of the transactions in 2004, but I have a good idea why the Scorpions would be interested. Perhaps, over time, we will get to know exactly who was given how much over how long.

More importantly, we would be interested to know if everybody who ever gave generously to our leaders expected and got anything in return.

It could be that, unbeknown to many a poor villager, the small goat that exchanged hands with a politician many years ago is today worth much more in return.

That depends, of course, on whether it was a bribe or a gift.

Madlala is publisher and editor of umAfrika.

With acknowledgements to Madlala and the Business Day.