04 January 2010

A Border Crossing

We left Maputo at eight o’clock in the morning—plenty of time, we thought, to cross the border into South Africa and get our friends to the airport in Johannesburg by three.

The drive started out nice enough. After a weekend spent lazing at the beach and bumming around the streets of the old Portuguese colonial capital, the five of us settled into our seats in the car and sat in congenial silence, listening to music. There was Adam, a lanky blond geologist and native Zambian; Emma, an aid worker from Ireland with a singsong accent and fire red hair; Jack, a Dutch doctor who runs some clinics in Lusaka; Lou, an American statistician working in Swaziland; and me.

About an hour into our drive, we came round a bend and slammed to a halt. Cars, buses, and trucks, for as far as we could see, were stopped in the road. We waited a moment for it to pick up, but it didn’t, so Emma, Jack and I walked down the highway in search of an explanation.

It was cool out. Drops of rain spat down onto the green stretches of hills dotted with bush. The men manning the road block told us that, though it was just ten kilometers away, it would be hours before we got to the border. It was jammed with people returning from holiday and traveling for work into South Africa. The border crossing itself would take even longer.

After several conversations (please, sir, we have flights to catch!) and trips back and forth to the car (plus 100 rand), the men let us cut ahead, past the long line of cars, into empty highway.

We hit deadlock again not long after. While we debated whether to walk to the border or stick together in the car, Lou called Felix, a guy who had (for a small fee) helped us sort through temporary car insurance and immigration when we crossed into Mozambique. About thirty minutes later, Felix was at our car with a plan for getting us through the stop in traffic, he just needed some cash, which we gave him. He returned thirty minutes later with instructions for moving ahead. It worked. He caught up with us down the road (where traffic was sluggish again), gathered our passports and walked with Jack and Adam to the border post to take care of our paperwork.

Lou, Emma and I crept on down the highway, inch by inch, snacking on dried fruit and biscuits, reading books that were lying around the car, and watching passers-by. Outside, floods of people had abandoned their vehicles, wagering that it would be faster to make the journey by foot. Men with briefcases. Women with babies. Hipsters with sunglasses. Families. Friends. All trudging along the wet asphalt and muddy hillsides. It felt a little like a block party: strangers greeted each other, guys sold drinks and nuts, and the smell of rain mixed with the smell of smoke as women cooked food by the side of the road.

Jack and Adam returned with our passports, which had been processed and stamped in a back room at immigration, we paid Felix (again) and were on our way.

With our completed paperwork in hand, energy and humor came back to the car. We bounced down the road, relieved smiles and laughs, and were nearly to the crossing when we saw the exodus.

Next to the highway, on a gentle sweep of rain-spattered hillside, thousands of people (that’s right, thousands) stood in a line ten deep. This was the line for immigration for those who couldn't pay their way through. They looked like refugees, an ocean of them, possessions in hand, a frozen current.

We drove quickly by, turning our heads to watch them recede into the distance, our mouths open wide in amazement. Thank goodness, Emma said, that we’re not in that.


Down the road, nearly to the crossing, we hit deadlock again. To our left was a coned off empty lane, which we considered cutting into, but hesitated. Back in Maputo, Jack had accidentally made a wrong turn down a one-way street, and we were pulled over immediately. It took nearly twenty minutes to negotiate the bribe down and convince the police to let us go.

Eventually, we pulled up next to a border security agent, told him our paperwork was complete, and he waved us into the fast lane. Happily, surprisingly, we sailed through the border and crossed into South Africa. Deep exhale: we had made it.

But not quite. A young border guard on the South Africa side flagged us down with a stern wag of his finger. Clad in a dark navy blue uniform, he told us to turn around and go to the back of the line. “You are not finished,” he said.

Sick silence from Adam and I; cursing from Emma—fuckers!; and Lou, boiling at the steering wheel while Jack, masking his disgust, tried to sweet talk, and then reason with, the young man.

It got us no where. The more we protested, the more he hardened against us. And when we tried defiantly to pull over instead of turning around, he raised his voice: Turn around.

So we did. After hours and countless bribes, we drove to the back of the line, and waited.

The guard’s insistence wasn’t entirely spurious. We had actually missed “passport control,” which consisted of a fat, sluggish woman stopping each car to look absently at passports and take some money. We had just scraped together the cash and were approaching her when, for some reason, she turned around and walked away. And once again, we drove across the border and into South Africa, bewildered and deflated.


The whole affair took three hours and cost about 1,300 rand. We’d interacted with about 10 separate individuals and had paid nearly all of them.


I never used to think much about corruption, back when I worked at the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, DC. Conversations in liberal policy and advocacy circles were dominated by efforts to make programs more “country owned.” The donors need to get out of the way and “let the countries lead.” CGD’s HIV/AIDS Monitor, for example, tirelessly recommends that PEPFAR, the massive U.S. AIDS program, stop relying so heavily on international NGOs and parallel systems to implement its programs, and instead, channel aid through country systems, in order to build capacity and prevent duplication.

When I asked Jack and Emma about aid modalities over dinner one evening, they laughed and recalled a corruption scandal that rocked the Zambian Ministry of Health back in May 2009. Two European donors, who channel health aid directly to the ministry, temporarily suspended the flow of funds in response. “The Americans must have been laughing,” Jack said. “They do it right: they control their aid as much as possible.”

Keep aid away from the system, he implied, because the system—from the high ups in government to the guy on the street selling bananas—is corrupt to the bone.


Why on earth don’t they do something about this, I asked as we left the border? I already knew the answer. Countless people were profiting, and not just a few dodgy immigration officials, but everyone. And they had all the time in the world. We could either wait and pay or not pay and wait even longer.

And what if we, a group of expats, were upset at having to pay bribes, at the total nonexistence of rules and order? What if the Africans were upset at having to spend all day at the border because there was no good system for processing them? Who would any of us complain to about any of it?


Everyone is corrupt. (Or at least it feels that way sometimes.) And not in the Swiss-bank-account-and-Paris-shopping-spree-kind-of-way. Corruption is more subtle than that, and more insidious. It’s about conversations with officials that circle round and round and go no where; minor bribes for everything; constant skimming off the top; workers who don’t work very hard, who seem unconcerned with either quality or efficiency; civil servants who demand massive per diems, first class flights, and Landrovers; and aid officials who give it to them over and over again.

Not that it’s entirely about money. The guard who forced us to turn around didn’t gain any money (that we know of) from the incident, but he did gain something: it was a fight, and he had won. Corruption is also about power. A young guy from the African sticks puts on a uniform, and suddenly he can force four Western aid workers and one white Zambian—five people whose privileges in life far exceed his own—to go to the back of the line. I imagine it was satisfying, to see us reeling, powerless, to watch us lose.


  1. I am very grateful you are with friends on these travels. It is fasinating to hear of your adventures. What an exciting experience.

  2. The corruption problem came up and the decision was to give cash directly to the governments. Aid is given usually through groups that take a percentage. To avoid this the logic is to give it directly to the governments. This is done because health care is an inherently government function and PEPFAR provides this as an entitlement voted on every five years(budget) just before the Presidential election, so using the logic of inherently government functions that means US government money and jobs in the US. The corruption issue is bypassed because of the definition of health care in the States and the money and jobs for federal workers in the States.

    South Africa just got millions from the US embassy budget there 'for whatever they want.' I would site the article, but it was pulled.

  3. Lindsay,
    I am confronting the same thing in Nepal. We can't move forward because the NGO's have a corner on the aid market. 500 million of international aid will go into Nepal this year...and nothing will change, for the good that is. We have teamed up with Today's Youth Asia to come up with a way to encourage young social entrepreneurs around the country to steer clear of the corruption and strike a new course. Once a person takes the first bribe (they call it "behind the curtain" rather than "under the table.") they are in and can't get out. Much like the mafia, I suppose. Good job on this piece. Your writing is astoundingly good. Carmen

  4. Big thanks for your comment, Carmen -- very kind of you.

    The corruption problem is far worse, and goes far deeper, than I ever imagined back in Washington. Being only three months in, I'm still at the scratching-my-head / pulling-out-my-hair stage -- haven't come up with any practical ideas for how to pierce the culture. Donors are certainly a big part of the problem.

    Look forward to being in touch about writing possibilties!

    All best--