Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Web of corruption ensnares South Africa: There is much suspicion that people in positions of power are looting the shop before it is sold. John Carlin reports from Johannesburg on the rising tide of fraud

THE PORTABLE toilet, a plastic contraption shaped like an old British telephone box, has become a favourite subject of after-dinner conversation at white South African tables.

After crime, corruption is what everybody is talking about. And the portable toilet has become a national symbol of corruption, following the revelation last year that two government employees had sold contracts for the manufacture of several thousand such devices, all of which stand unused, in regimental formation, in townships around the land.

The toilet scam formed part of a far wider scandal involving the misappropriation of hundreds of millions of pounds by officials of a government department whose purpose was to improve the lives of black communities.

One scandal after another in the past six months has led local editorial writers painfully to conclude that corruption, obscured over the years by the greater sin of apartheid, is as endemic in South Africa as it is elsewhere on the continent. The difference between the South African variant and that of, say, Zaire, is that no one has accused President F W de Klerk or any other member of the cabinet of having become the richest person in the country. This in turn has prompted some to argue that a better analogy might be found in the institutionalised graft of the old Communist regimes. The difference here, of course, is that a great deal more cash has flowed through the South African system.

In the last month it has emerged that a state-run motor accident fund, to which motorists contribute every time they buy a litre of petrol, is 3bn rand ( pounds 700m) in the red; that the Department of Transport had mismanaged hundreds of millions of rand, an example of one of the lesser crimes being the practice of renting out state-owned farms to officials for 10 rand a month; that senior officials, white and black, of Soweto City Council had conspired with contractors and consultants to misuse tens of millions targeted for township development.

As for the black 'homelands' and their Pretoria-sanctioned leaders, stories of corruption are rife. One, about 700 government cars in the Ciskei which went missing, is a typical case. In another 'homeland', scores of unused Mercedes vehicles were found simply to be gathering rust in the open air. Rather more seriously, an independent body engaged in drought relief revealed at the end of last year that only a fraction of a 300m rand government package aimed at rural blacks in the rain-starved north of the country had reached its destination.

In addition, there have been a number of exposes surrounding the use of public money by the police and the army to set up under-cover outfits whose purpose it was either to carry out murders or to mount campaigns aimed at supporting the government's black allies and discrediting the African National Congress. In this climate, a newspaper story two weeks ago claiming that the government planned to use 200m rand of treasury funds to provide MPs - most of whom face the prospect of redundancy as democracy beckons - with pensions and golden handshakes, did not go down well with the taxpayers.

The Cambridge-based Centre for International Documentation on Organised and Economic Crime, which is staging a symposium this week in South Africa, remarked in a statement that the process of political transition had been marked by an alarming decline in ethical standards.

'Political uncertainty and social unrest have shortened the time horizons of all economic players and created a motivation to get rich quick, no matter what,' the centre said. An analyst at the symposium added: 'Fraud . . . is the only industry that is really thriving in a poor economic climate.'

There is a generalised suspicion throughout the country that people in positions of power everywhere are looting the shop before it is sold. But, as the Johannesburg Sunday Star said in an editorial shortly after the toilet scam was uncovered, the problem is neither new, nor should it have come as any great surprise.

'What can you expect from a government that has been absolutely corrupted by 40 years of power?' said the Star. 'The deeds done in the name of apartheid - the Nats (National Party) called it patriotism - are hideous, and under the cloak of secrecy many of them filled their pockets at the expense of a nation of white sheep and a nation of oppressed blacks.'

(Photograph omitted)