Should I Bribe South African Cops?

Not much can be so anxiety-inducing as being stopped by the police in a foreign country. Especially in a country such as South Africa, where there is no shortage of horror stories about crime and corruption. I know I may have fueled that fire with my many blog posts about traffic stops, though I tend to think that most of mine are humorous rather than frightening.

The question I get often is this: Should I bribe the cops when they stop me? If not, what SHOULD I do?

If you’ve read my previous posts on the topic, you will know that I NEVER PAID A BRIBE while in South Africa, and this worked out just fine for me. Granted, I was harboring the secret hope that I might get arrested and see the inside of a South African jail cell so that I could blog about it – this never happened – and perhaps for this reason I acted more boldly than I might have otherwise. But even if the last thing any sane person wishes for is to be arrested, it is still a good idea not to pay bribes. At the least, I saved a bunch of money by not bribing, I lived to tell the tale, and I like to think that I did my small part to combat corruption.

So what should you do when stopped by the police? Here is my advice*:

  1. Know your rights. You are required to show your driver’s license (your foreign one is just fine, more on that here), but not much else. Here is a great resources listing your rights:  Justice Project South Africa (scroll down a bit for a list of your rights during roadblocks).
  2. To show that you know your rights, it helps to wave around a copy of the South African Road Traffic Act. Most foreigners who get stopped in road blocks are accused of not having the proper license or traffic register number or of even more outlandish things, like not carrying a letter of permission from their spouse (yes, I am not kidding you!), and the best way to show you’re not intimidated by any of this is to come prepared. Click here to see which document you should print and carry in your car with you.
  3. Ask for the officer’s appointment card. When stopped by a police officer in South Africa, you can ask to see the officer’s appointment card (certificate of appointment). This is basically the police officer’s ID. They are required by law to produce it on demand in terms of Section 334(2)(a) of the Criminal Procedure Act. If a police officer fails to show you his appointment card, you do not have to show him your license. Furthermore, you can ask to speak to his supervisor or his commander.
  4. Don’t get into an argument.  If the officer does not show you the appointment card, take note of it but don’t make a fuss. Without making it obvious, try to take a picture or note the license plate of the police officer’s vehicle.
  5. Stay cheerful and pretend you have all the time in the world. The worst thing you can do is show that you’re in a rush. That’s like an invitation to demand a bribe. Instead, just wait things out, and I promise you that sooner or later you will be released, either after having been handed a ticket or without any further consequence. Very rarely do you actually receive a ticket.

Please, whatever you do, don’t be tempted to pay a bribe. This will only perpetuate the problem. Some police officers will, quite pathetically, ask for a bribe in circumspect ways, by asking you what you’ve brought them or if you have any coffee or something to eat. I find this quite comical and don’t think it would be wrong to offer them some candy or gum, should you have some in the car.

But do not part with your money.

And now, for the fun part, you can rewind the clock and follow my traffic stop odyssey here:

More on Traffic: When You Get Pulled Over
This is ALSO Africa
Harassment by South African cops
Plan B for When the Cops Stop me Again
My Shining Moment
Narrowly Escaping Jail
I Don’t Even Have to Be in Joburg for Another Traffic Cop Story
Welcome Home. And Can I See Your Driver’s License?

*Many thanks to Peter Elsmore for kindly sending me extensive information about the Justice Project South Africa and lending his advice regarding traffic stops and the rights of motorists.