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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?