With any type of traveling, feeling vulnerable is never far from reach. Whether it’s a language barrier, feeling vulnerable can either add to the experience and adventure of being in a foreign land. On the flip side, it can also make for an unfortunate experience.

Police corruption in Johannesburg is real

Police corruption is everywhere, no matter the wealth of a nation. It’s a theme that’s common in films and news stories. When it doesn’t affect us or anyone we know, it’s normal and too easy to turn a blind eye. However an incident in Johannesburg revealed its very real, and very ugly side.

I’d been in Johannesburg working on a parliamentary conference, and staying in the affluent Sandton area. If you’re unfamiliar with Sandton, it almost resembles a faux LA. With the presence of President Joseph Zuma, security was tight, with handfuls of police officers cordoned between the hotels and the conference centre.

Coming face-to-face with police corruption in Johannesburg

Heading back to the hotel after a work dinner, I’d left my colleague behind. He’s the chatty kind; the always smiling guy who never runs out of topics to talk about. Thinking he was talking to delegates from the conference I went ahead to my room.

Upon inserting my room card, I suddenly saw him waving at me from across the other side of the hotel. Clearly flustered about something, he called my name across the hallway.

When only a bribe will suffice...

The real motivation?

Visibly shaken, he explained that a high-ranking officer stopped him on the way. Apparently, my colleague’s description fit that of a suspected terrorist in the hotel.

That said, he forcibly told my colleague that he had to accompany him to the police station. Naturally, my colleague explained he was part of the conference team, at which point the officer turned.

‘Do you think I’m a f**ing civilian or something?’ he yelled at my colleague as the other uniformed officers hung their heads and looked away. At this point, my colleague panicked, his fears of being taken to a South African jail becoming all the more real.

Fortunately, the confrontation came to an end after 2 delegates saw him. After verifying his identity, the officer barked ‘you’re dismissed’, and walked away with the other officers in tow.

Thinking the worst

While comforting our colleague, our boss raised the idea that the officer had targeted him for a bribe. In my naivete, I’d never even considered it.

Police corruption is something I’d only read in the newspapers or seen in the movies. We were all shocked by what had happened, but more so that the officer did it within the hotel grounds. Having been there for an international conference, our expectations of the police were solely to protect, not terrorise, the delegates.

police corruption in Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela square

With its reputation of high crime in Johannesburg, I knew about it, but never imagined to see it for myself. As travelers, it’s easy to forget the reality behind the majesty of visiting a new country.

The bribery problem

Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer interviewed 114,270 people in 107 countries. It found that while bribery is a global problem, it isn’t an equally distributed one.

African countries top the table, with Sierra Leone, Libya, Uganda and Kenya coming in the top ten. In Liberia, 75% of respondents admit giving money to officials, with 64% of Libyans doing the same. Though western countries scored better, around 1 in 14 Americans said they’d paid off officials. Seven per cent had bribed the police, and 15% had bribed judges. Maybe not so surprising in this post, the report found that 36 countries said that police was the most corrupt institution.

Corrupt police will continue to exist whether we travel from Morocco to Myanmar. So too will our sense of vulnerability when traveling. Ultimately, it’s up to us to put aside our own expectations about any public institution, and more importantly, to research the country before visiting.

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