Going through a toll gate recently I paid a dollar but then noticed that the lady who should have given me a receipt got distracted, whether by accident or design, with someone else. I got impatient and did not wait for my receipt but as I drove on I could not help feeling the dollar would not find its way into the national treasury.

One dollar! So what? That is a minor matter. But small things – and this applies to both the good and the bad – have a habit of becoming big things. Jesus tells the story of the people’s different gifts; one uses his gifts well and his master says, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have shown you are trustworthy in small things: I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness” (Matt 25:21).

And the opposite can happen. I once rented one room in London and the gas meter broke such that the gas was on tap but it was not being recorded. I enjoyed this unexpected turn of events for several weeks until my conscience got the better of me and told the landlord. Who knows? Maybe I was on the edge of a life of corruption?

There is a marvelous scene in A Man for All Seasons, the story of Thomas Moore, where the attorney, Thomas Cromwell, tries to get a servant, Richard Rich, to perjure himself and give false evidence against Moore. Rich resists at first but then weakly gives way and Cromwell remarks, “there, that wasn’t so bad, was it? It will be easier next time.” Rich ends up being the cause of the execution of Moore.

To borrow a phrase, corruption of any sort enters like a lamb and goes out like a lion. It is widespread in the world and, if reports are to be believed, can be found in the Vatican. In our own country there are persistent reports of endemic corruption in the civil service, in mining and in local and national government. There is a report just this week of Harare city officials awarding themselves astronomical salaries.

As of now, there seems no way of addressing this virus. Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights Director, Irene Petras, remarked a few days ago,

Electoral victories in Zimbabwe today are delivered via flawed, unavailable voters’ rolls, suspicious voting slips, bussing of ineligible ‘voters’, manipulation of voting numbers, continued voter intimidation, whether overt or psychological, and arrogant state institutions that do not serve their country professionally and with moral authority. The resultant impunity and failure to invest energy into addressing these issues, combined with politicians who are disconnected from the realities of the woman or man on the street, will ensure that whether 1000 opposition parties contest, or they band together, we will continue repeating the same sad cycle.

In other words, the culture of corruption is firmly rooted in our country as it is in many others. The press, even The Herald, regularly reports on it. Human bodies get diseases and the body politic can too. We have seen humans wracked with the deadly HIV virus in recent decades. Our own country too is smitten by a terrible disease. Maybe the conscience of the toll gate lady has long since been tamed and no longer has the power to disturb her habit. After all “everyone does it.” A bad – or a good – habit quickly becomes part of us.

How can I stand in judgment over that lady who pocketed a single dollar or the seeming large number who pocket vast sums? A tolerance for corruption developed when the state early on lost its innocence and the energy to insist on “zero tolerance” of fraud simply drained away. Corruption has become normal. 

But just as people learnt to be corrupt and get away with it so they can learn that in the long run it is harmful to everyone. I may benefit for a time but, like a sick man taking a stimulant, it will only postpone the day of Judgment. In the end people are more likely to follow good example than bad. Once leaders blow the whistle on corruption it will diminish and lose its power to blunt the conscience of a nation.