South Africa's sanctions profiteers reach the end of the primrose path

THE salesman in a Cape Town shop was cheerfully honest when I asked for two of the TDK audio tapes on the counter. 'Buy them if you want to but those tapes are bootleg and not very good,' he said. 'They're the last of our stock from sanctions times. Our next stock will be legal - and more expensive.'

The tapes, made illegally using the TDK name in some distant part of the world, are a tiny part of the sanctions- busting that South Africans resorted to during the past 30 years and more. 'You could get anything you wanted, genuine or counterfeit goods, at a price,' says a businessman. He prefers not to be identified after profiting from importing - and exporting - many goods forbidden by the anti-apartheid world.

It began with oil. International sanctions never prevented South Africa from getting the oil it wanted, but prices were high, with dire effects on the economy. The surreptitious buying also provided scope for graft on a dizzying scale.

In the event, there was never any crippling oil shortage. The worst came with restrictions on selling hours and speed limits. For a while travellers had to endure the 950-mile summer-holiday drive from Johannesburg to Cape Town at a maximum 50mph. Now, with South Africa once again a legal partner in world trade, the BBC is one of the beneficiaries. For some 17 years a British Equity ban kept BBC drama productions off South African television; the Americans had no such scruples and US soaps grew to a dominating position. The BBC has to stage a comeback.

Although the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation did not use illegal fare, there was no shortage of BBC material through video outlets, pirated off television in Britain and flown to South Africa, often with the payment of local customs duty. The private video shops which abounded did well out of Dennis Potter dramas, Fawlty Towers, Clive James, the Barchester Chronicles, sports and just about anything of worth that has ever appeared on British screens.

One sanctions-buster who publicised his Johannesburg video shop with the boast of 'better-end British material', said in a recent newspaper interview that although he had not paid royalties to the BBC, he did not see himself as a pirate. 'I wasn't hurting anybody by what I was doing,' he said. 'I was filling an important gap that was created by the politicians, and I was promoting British heritage and culture.' He has packed away his collection, which is just as well, because copyright-policing organisations are actively hunting down those pirates who still dare to operate. The law holds the threat of fines of pounds 1,000 or three years in prison.

Another area in which piracy has been rampant is computer software. Heavyweight international companies - Microsoft, Lotus, Borland and WordPerfect among them - are back to claim what is due to them: they have found that up to 80 per cent of software on many business computers is illegal.

'The rush by the multinationals to divest from South Africa in the 1980s left a legal void, with nobody around to enforce the copyright on their software. During that time, sanctions-busting and piracy was a national sport, in fact considered by some to be almost patriotic,' says the magazine SA Computer Buyer.

Businesses are being encouraged to own up to their piracy and to pay for legal licensing. If they do not the industry and its policing organisations brandish the threat of applying the copyright law: a business with a 100-station network of illegal software could face a fine of pounds 100,000 plus claims for civil damages.

With the end of the boycott it is not only the South African sanctions-busting specialists who have lost income. Their counterparts in a host of countries are also affected. Singapore, it is said, was the channel for purchases from India and Pakistan. Lesotho and Swaziland played their part as conduits for payments. Mauritius and Israel were also big players. Fortunes were made on the back of the anti-apartheid struggle.