Violence and the costs of honesty: Rethinking bureaucrats’ choice to take bribes

Explanations of bureaucrats’ decisions to take bribes include accounts of incentives as well as expectations. However, there are further considerations in violent contexts, where refusal of bribes may have dire consequences. Yet, insight into this topic is limited. This article investigates how violence upholds bribery, through interviews with South African officials who enforce regulations in communities where gangs operate. The investigation shows that when citizens offer bribes to enable rule violations, this is a process of both temptation and threats: officials who refuse bribes face intimidation by both citizens and colluding colleagues. This illustrates how violence may function as a mechanism to enforce corrupt contracts between bureaucrats and criminal citizens. Through reducing costs in such settings, bribe-taking is partly a strategy of social protection. This has implications for policy and suggests that, besides incentives and expectations, administrative reforms may benefit from ‘fixing the security’ of bureaucrats in violent contexts.