In Africa, bribery and corruption have sullied the overlanding experience for many travellers. Our own recent experience at the hands of Africa’s Kings of Extortion, the Zimbabwean police, caused us to ponder: what are you really supposed to do when confronted by an official who claims that your perfectly legal driving licence is not legal? We spoke to some well-travelled overlanders to find out how they deal with this type of menace.
What do you call a man with an AK47 in Africa? ‘Sir!’ of course. But how are you really supposed to handle a situation where the oobvious aim is to pocket some spending money, instead of upholding any kind of law and order? Like when the official points to your vehicle’s number plate (not the licence disc) and informs you that you are in big trouble because your licence plate has expired? Or, that you are illegally using your SUV as a commercial vehicle because, in the second row, you have folded one seat flat and have packed some luggage there, while your child is strapped into the upright seat?
Do you get angry and shout, calling the official all kinds of names? Or do you go completely the other way, and beg for the official’s forgiveness for your oversight of letting the number plate expire, and offer some ‘cool drink money’ to make them feel better? Let’s start this off with a typical scenario that plays out at a border post (and that actually happened to us). You arrive at a quiet border post. The paperwork and admin are quickly dispatched. Time for the police inspection, and a policeman asks that you open the cooler box. No problem. Inside the cooler box he finds one bottle of whisky, and two bottles of wine; way less than the prescribed limit for alcohol importation into this country. But the policeman has a plan: he states that we have exceeded the maximum liquor importation quota, and that he will have to confiscate the whisky. Clearly the young man has an interest in a bottle of J&B’s finest. However, we had checked the exact liquor quotas before departing for his country, so we knew we were far from exceeding any legal limit. He does not take this news well, and threatens to arrest us.
We insist that we had not broken any law and the young policeman gets more and more agitated by our reluctance to hand over the loot. Realising that things were heading south fast, we offer a great solution: since it is illegal to take the whisky into his country, we shall dispose of it into the drain, and deposit the empty bottle in the dustbin. So we take the offending bottle and headed over to the nearby drain, ready to (really) dump the drink down the drain instead of handing it over. This caused a more senior olice officer to step forward. “It’s fine, you can go. Take your whisky with you,” he said. Voetspore’s Johan Badenhorst also believes that, if you know you are in the right, you should be firm but never aggressive. “But first you have to ensure that all your matters are in order. Make sure you have all the correct documentation, fire extinguishers, emergency triangles, stickers and so on, as required by the particular country. You also obviously need to adhere to the traffic rules. As soon as you break a law, you open the corruption door,” says Johan.
Johan also advises that you have absolutely all your paperwork in order. Give them everything that’s humanly possible. When you hand over a huge pile of very carefully prepared paperwork, the whole process starts looking a little daunting from an administrative perspective. No official is going to inspect everything line by line. Hand over some shoddily completed papers, however, and its suddenly much easier to find something wrong. Time is another important trump card if an official demands a bribe. “Never let the official know that you are in a hurry, even if you are. Just hang around, pretending that you have all the time in the world. If the officer stops anyone else, don’t be shy to tell those people your story, too. In the meantime other potential ‘clients’, who could more readily pull out the cash, are driving past, unchecked. More often than not he will tire of the encumbrance, and send you on your way,” continues Johan.
Experienced overland guide Andre van Vuuren agrees about the time factor. In Africa, time is king. When he was stopped for allegedly speeding in Zambia, he lazily set up his gas stove, kettle and camping chair, and started preparing a pot of tea. When the tea was ready, he offered a cup to the officer, who accepted. “So we chatted about this and that, and had our tea together. And then he told me to go,” says Andre. Sometimes you have to have a bit of a song-and-dance, too. Like an incident at a border crossing between Botswana and Zambia. One of the 4×4s in Andre’s convoy had lost a number plate on the bumpy Chobe National Park tracks. Since it was a Sunday, with no number plate printing shops open, the group fabricated a cardboard plate with the vehicle’s registration written clearly with a black marker.
At the border the female driver of the offending 4×4 was immediately pulled out of the line of vehicles, and Andre walked over to assist. The officer indicated that a fine was pending. “I told him that we would gladly pay a fine. We just needed a receipt, too. He retorted that since it was Sunday, the receipt book was not available. So I said that, since it was Sunday, our cash was also not available, only credit cards. After a bit of um and ah, he let us proceed without further problems. So sometimes you have to play them at their own game,” says Andre. However, when you are by yourself, in the middle of nowhere, and 10 men armed with AK47s jump into the road and say you exceeded the speed limit, best you not argue much. And a pot of tea probably won’t help much either. But then there are the lone sharks, too.
“I have, on a few occasions, come across a single official who stopped me for some bogus reason. If he had no car, as is often the case, and no AK47, I’d tell him to have a nice day and just drive off,” he says. Johan and Andre agree that the golden rule is to never, ever lose your temper, even if the charge is a ludicrous one. “If you lose your temper, you’ve lost the fight, and there’s no turning back. And arguing with a man with an AK47 is never a good plan,” says Andre. Andre believes some tourists and overlanders are part of the bribery problem. “Many tourists, for understandable reasons, want to avoid conflict. So if the threat of arrest is made, they are quick to pay. This emboldens that official to continue in their ways. Also, if you are caught doing 42km/h in a 40km/h zone in Zambia, the fine is 20 000 shillings, with a receipt. But then the officer offers a deal of 5 000 shillings, with no receipt (with that money obviously going into his pocket). Most motorists will take that handy discount any day.
But this creates a culture of bribery among the police officers.” What’s the moral of the story? Handle each situation on its own merit. If you know you are in the right, and the situation warrants it, be firm in your protest, but never aggressive. And take your time. Always take your time. And smile. And wave.
Kingsley Holgate’s Land Rover journeys have taken him to every country on this continent. This is what he advises: “When it comes to damn roadblocks, we first check out if it’s standard police, military with weapons, or ragtag militia, and immediately inform the others down the line by radio in our rather colourful, not to be repeated code. “Important is friendliness, an unflustered manner, polite words of greeting in the local language if you can, and immediately open with a statement-question like: “You have a beautiful country Sir. But how far is it to Mpulungu? How is the road? How is security?” And so you chat and the mood changes.
Humour and patience are key. Always remember that while the Swiss might have developed the clock, it’s good old Mama Africa who owns the time! Mr Big, the official, will also be flabbergasted when you hand over your creatively stamped copies of letters of authority and passports, for him to keep (so you need lots of creatively stamped copies). Safari Njema… Have a great journey!”
Text: Danie Botha Photos: Deon van der Walt