Roadside justice

2011-01-21 00:00

I HAVE sinned. I was caught speeding — not very fast, but speeding nevertheless.

On the Monday after Christmas I was driving to meet my family at a game lodge in Zululand. An Australian daughter and her family would be there, together with all of my South African family. It had been planned for months. We planned to give the Australians a taste of Africa.

I took the scenic route through northern KwaZulu-Natal. While on the highway I carefully kept within the speed limit. Once on an empty country road 100 km/h seemed slow and I pushed it up to 113. There was a farm lorry ahead. I sped up a little more to pass it. And the traffic officer leapt from his hiding place.

With a broad smile on his face, he asked after our health. Were we enjoying our journey? Was Madam well? Madam replied that she was annoyed because she had told her husband he was driving too fast. "That is true," said the officer. "You were unfortunately speeding. Furthermore, this is an 80-kilometre zone."

I demurred. I had seen no sign. There was no village, no houses, no reason for a lower speed. Yes, he assured me, there was a sign, although admittedly a little obscured by a tree. He couldn't say why it was an 80 km zone here. He agreed there was no village, no school, no sign of habitation. But the fact was that it was such a zone, and I had been clocked at 123 km an hour. Would I care to inspect the machine and check for myself?

I could have asked him if his machine had been properly calibrated by the SABS and if he could show me the certificate of calibration, but it did not seem a time to make enemies. I admitted I had been speeding.

"Well," he said, "in this case the fine is R1 500."

I blanched.

"But the difficulty," he said, "is that a fine of this nature cannot be issued by a traffic officer but only by a magistrate."

"Where is the magistrate?" I asked. Possibly in Ladysmith or Vryheid, was the answer — but unfortunately today was a public holiday and the magistrate could only issue the fine tomorrow.

It seemed a long way back from Zululand to Vryheid, but I accepted that I would have to return tomorrow. No, he said, there was a further problem. He could not allow me to continue on my journey at all. I would have to stay in his care until the next day. "Unless," he said, "you can make a suggestion." I failed to grasp his meaning.

He took me off to his car hidden down a track some 200 metres off the road. "What suggestion can you make?" he asked again. In naivety I was confused. Could he not issue the ticket and I would pay the fine today at the nearest police station? No, unfortunately the rules did not allow that. I could spend a nice day with him relaxing and talking, and the next day I could pay the fine. "But my family is waiting for me and I will hardly see my daughter who leaves for Australia soon. I can't spend the day here."

He could see my difficulty. But again, he asked, could I make a suggestion? What did I suggest? "Am I allowed to pay the fine to you," I asked. Ah yes, it appeared that this might be a solution. I began to catch the drift of the suggestion I was expected to make. "But I don't have R1 500 on me," I said (which was true). "I only have R500 in my wallet." It appeared that in the circumstances this might meet the requirements.

I fetched my wallet. In fact it turned out I only had R455 in notes, and some silver. I offered the contents to him. He graciously declined the silver, saying that the R455 would meet my obligations satisfactorily. He wrote down, on a single piece of paper with no letterhead, my name, my registration number, the sum of R455, and a speed which it appeared had in the interim been reduced to 93 km per hour, and a note which said "Fine paid". There was no mention of a receipt, nor did I ask for one.

I returned to my car, my wallet empty. He came with me, to assure Madam with another broad smile that there was no need to worry as all had been satisfactorily resolved. He hoped Madam was not angry with me any more. Perhaps Madam should drive from now on. Madam agreed. We went on our way and had a lovely family time.

But the ethics bothered me. Should I not, as a good citizen, have held out my hands for the handcuffs and insisted that he did his duty and drive me off to jail for the night, thus ruining a precious family holiday — and no doubt ruinin­g the kindly traffic officer's day as well. What should an ethical person do? For once, I admit, I was glad that I lived in South Africa where problems could sometimes be resolved in a less than official way by a friendly officer with a big smile. I had also had a little taste of Africa.

But yes, I sinned. I was speeding. I did, initially unwittingly, collaborate in what I now really understand was a bribe. What can I do to put things right? I do think that R1 500 was a bit steep in the circumstances. To allay my conscience I have halved the amount and paid a further R300 to Hospice, thus fining myself R755.

And so far I have kept my New Year's resolution to adhere in all cases to the stipulated speed limit.

• Footnote: Madam was not unoccupied during the negotiation. She photographed the proceedings and is pushing me to use the evidence. But as I am now a partner in crime I am reluctant to grass on my smiling friend. Africa triumphs again.

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