Based on five months’ field research in two districts of Burundi (Bukeye and Mabayi), this case study analyses tax collectors’ rationales and informal practices during their interactions with citizens. The analysis also examines local governance, in order to understand how informal practices are accepted, legitimised and even supported by local authorities. Field observations reveal a fluctuating balance of power, and the various constraints and room for manoeuvre used by local agents dealing with tax payers. Further, an investigation into tax enforcement provides a basis for measuring the discrepancy between, on the one hand, formal good governance norms and standards of behaviour and, on the other, informal strategies developed by local civil servants and officials. The article demonstrates that corruption is mainly a social phenomenon, far from its formal definition, which generally refers only to the search of private gains. Corruption is systemic and part of the current CNDD-FDD party’s governance framework in Burundi, relying on public administration’s politicisation, solidarity networks and socio-economic factors. More broadly, the article shows that corruption labelling remains topical to spur a State conception and structural changes through ‘good governance’ and anti-corruption norms.