How to bribe a politician: South Africa vs East Africa

Thursday October 1 2020


By Charles Onyango-Obboo

Ferial Haffajee is a good friend, and brilliant journalist and writer. She is currently Associate Editor at South Africa’s Daily Maverick, and it is there that we encounter her today.

Last week she wrote an article for Daily Maverick 168 on the Zondo Commission of Inquiry which is looking into the famed “state capture” by the Gupta business family, which infamously nearly ate South Africa to the bone allegedly with Jacob Zuma while he was president. The inquiry is gripping, revealing the shocking extent to which corruption was spread in South Africa during Zuma’s rule, and how rotten the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has become.

There is one small thing we need to get out of the way first, though. Daily Maverick had, until a few days ago, been a digital-only publisher. With a very successful digital operation, it decided to go into print – during a pandemic – at a time when in most other places newspapers are trying to reinvent themselves as digital operations, or are shuttering and their publishers running for the hills. Daily Maverick 168 has been the result.

Daily Maverick 168 is, however, not a traditional newspaper, and is doing many things, including distribution, very differently. Most of it distributed through Pick & Pay supermarkets, which is a kind of publishing partner, and those with premium loyalty cards get is as part of the benefit. Think of a situation where Carrefour was in every town in Kenya, and they had a card level (or in their case app) which came with a newspaper. There are other elements, but that is the short of it. Business, apparently, is good.

It’s in 168 that Haffajee’s article first appeared, then it went online. Her sardonic sense was all over it. Titled “How to bribe a politician: A handy user’s guide”, it was about what the testimonies at the Zondo commission have so far revealed about the business of bribing South African politicians.

Reading it from the Equator, it is striking how different bribe giving to politicians in South Africa is different from our system in East Africa. I take that back, we are the same in two respects. She notes that from adding the sums allegedly given, the cost of bribing a politician at the national level in South Africa is going down. Going by moneys politicians are often reported to have eaten, especially in Kenya and Ugandan media, the cost is doing down in our neck of the woods too. There are so many politicians around these days, with the oversupply, the bribe-bargaining power of each of them individually has dwindled.


Secondly, a good old duffle bag full of money is also quite beloved in South Africa. That one is universal.

We learn that in South Africa, expensive birthday gifts are popular bribes for politicians. They take the form of a plush party, a holiday for the politician and his family (or mistress) to exotic destinations and, above all, a top end sporty car like an Aston Martin.

A house for a politician in a faraway place, like Dubai, also does the trick in South Africa.

One of the most unusual things Haffajee spotlights, which is totally unEast-African, are bribes to the ruling party ANC. Can you imagine a general bribe to Jubilee in Kenya, the National Resistance Movement in Uganda, or CCM in Tanzania? You can see the many ways that would go terribly wrong.

There are other very East African things that have not yet emerged at the Zondo Commission. No testimony has emerged yet of politicians getting plots of land. Soil is very important for us East Africans, so I don’t know what those South Africans are up to.

Also, no testimony has been offered yet about bribes in the form of cattle. There are some parts of this our East Africa where the higher you go, the more likely the only thing you can offer, especially a big man, is cattle. South Africans have really lost their way; no land, no cattle?

It’s early days, but so far, no testimony has been told at the Zondo Commission of whole power stations, roads, dams, schools, and tractors for an agricultural “modernisation” programme disappearing inside a politician’s Kaunda suit. They might yet get there.

Additionally, from the stories emerging from the commission, most South African politicians seem to get their cut and walk away. Unlike our people, they usually don’t take half the shares in the company being awarded a contract, or to give tenders to their, their wives, or children’s companies. They will never grow rich, those ones.

Finally, and shockingly, the South African politicians clearly have not yet mastered the art of burying the evidence. Or shall we say, burying the witnesses? Zuma left nearly everyone who had incriminating evidence against alive. Unlike in East Africa, therefore, the cost of throwing the boss under the bus in South Africa is relatively low.