Bribery in all its forms - petty, blatant, subtle, systematic or institutionalized - is pretty much a way of life in South Africa. Of course you get the whites who say it's an African thing, but in reality, is a human thing, borne out of economic desperation, bureaucratic frustration and maybe even civic creativity.
But knowing all of the above still didn't inoculate me from the stupefaction of being hit for a bribe by the immigration supervisor on duty at the airport when I left for Manila during the Christmas holidays.
My visa had expired, and I'd overstayed in the country by four days. And there was a fine to pay, I was informed by the officer at the counter. A thousand rands, or $100 at the prevailing exchange rate.
Sure, I'll pay, I replied. If I've committed some kind of contravention, I'm more than happy to pay the corresponding penalty. Is there an ATM here where I can go and draw out some cash?
Apparently that was not possible, as the ATMs were in the check-in area and I would not be allowed to get out of the passenger terminal. It was equally not permissible to pay by credit card.
So, I said, how do we sort this out?
And he said the three words most Filipinos (though not me) and perhaps people vaguely resembling Osama Bin Laden probably dread hearing the most at immigration counters - THIS WAY PLEASE. Then he escorted me to a small room at the side.
I was the supervisor's problem now, it seemed.
You are overstaying, I was informed yet again. You must pay the penalty otherwise you will not be allowed back into the country. It's one thousand rands.
Yes, of course I'll pay, I repeated, but how do we do this? Can I go to the ATM, can I use a credit card?
No ATM, no credit card, he told me.
There must be some way of paying, I insisted.
You must be rich, he said.
I'm not rich at all, I countered. What makes you think that?
Because, he shrugged, you didn't try to negotiate. You know, it's a thousand rands.
I shot him a look that said "Are you for real? The supervisor on duty at the Immigration Desk of OR Tambo International Airport?"
But what I said instead was the same thing I told his subordinate earlier: Excuse me but if I've committed some kind of transgression and there's a fine to pay, then I'm happy to pay it.
Oh, he shrugged again, I just thought I could find a way to make you happy and to make me happy. But you can pay the fine when you return, or at any South African Embassy overseas.
And he tears a sheet of his printer and hands it to me without signing. Just present this when you pay, he instructed with a sleazy smile. And you'll have no problem coming back into the country.
Of course the irony was not lost on me. I was departing a country where corruption was endemic in the culture and arriving half a day later in a country where the midget president had elevated it -- not to an art form for she lacked finesse, but to wholesale trade. Still, I didn't expect the crudeness with which the immigration supervisor on duty attempted to extract a bribe from me!
Anyway, I boarded the plane with the jubilation I always feel when I leave this country that I feel little affection for, mingled with pangs of sadness for the children I once again could not travel with overseas. But the stupefaction returned when I paid a visit to the South African Embassy in Manila only to be told that they could not find my name in the system, and was I sure I had to pay the fine?
It made me wonder whether there was indeed a grace period of, say, a week, and thus I wasn't subject to a fine for overstaying for a mere four days. But I insisted on paying the fine and doing everything above board.
I returned (with customary dead man walking gait) to Johannesburg and the officers at the immigration make a fuss once again over my passport, but armed with the receipt from the Embassy in Manila, they happily allow me entry and waved me through.
But in all their excitement they forgot, as I was to discover three and a half months later, to remove my name from the system and when I flew in from Zurich towards the end of April, it was THIS WAY PLEASE again.
And they demanded that I pay a fine for a contravention I had already acknowledged and paid for in January! But where was the proof that I had paid, they asked. Where was my receipt?
Wasn't the fact that I was allowed entry into the country in January and allowed exit in April - not to mention a brief trip to Swaziland in between - proof enough that I'd paid the fine?
My logic simply escaped them. They still wanted their one thousand rands. Again.
But my receipt is at my flat, I told them. Naturally I saw no need to bring it along with me as I'd assumed that, having already paid the fine, the rules regarding double jeopardy would hold.
Would you believe they wanted the receipt faxed through to them right there and then? Where did they think I lived? In a Mr Minute shop - keys cut while you wait? Sure, my personal assistant will fax it to you now. I mean, really.
But I guess it was too much to expect a modicum of efficiency from these uncivil servants who failed to delete my name from the system in January and now wanted to penalize me for their mistake.
And then, if I did pay the fine the second time and could prove it, I was told I would have to go to the Home Affairs office in Pretoria to get a refund for the double charge. Hello stupefaction my old friend.
Two hours later, victimized twice-over, first by the sheer inefficiency of the Home Affairs personnel, then by the obscene exchange rates and commission taken by the moneychanger, I prayed that I would not fall victim to the baggage handlers at the airport, notorious for their sticky fingers.
It hadn't been stolen, fortunately, but that didn't stop me from thinking that maybe I should have "negotiated" with that immigration supervisor in the first place...