To the Editor:

Leonard Thompson has correctly described the many challenges facing South Africa ("Mbeki's Uphill Challenge," November/December 1999). But his overall tone belies some positive aspects that, if considered, would provide a different perspective. Most disturbing is his assertion that corruption has grown since the advent of majority rule.

South Africa experienced some extraordinary corruption during the apartheid era. Several major scandals -- involving hundreds of millions of RAND -- became public in just the last several years of National Party rule. The government's long history of favoritism and kickbacks was hidden behind a system of nontransparency, a parliament controlled by the ruling party, and a generally authoritarian regime. The corruption that Thompson describes in the former homelands was fostered by a system of financial bribes and hidden subsidies designed to prop up homeland leaders in the apartheid era.

Moreover, the apartheid government encouraged parastatals and private companies to engage in illegal activity as a patriotic duty to bypass the sanctions imposed on South Africa for more than a decade. It was because so many leading South African industrialists were involved in the illegal activities of South African arms dealers that the resolution of the U.S. Justice Department's case against these dealers became such a contentious political issue. If there is a trend in corruption, it began much earlier. One official told me during the negotiations for majority rule that corruption had increased substantially during recent years as white civil servants sought to benefit before majority rule took over.

This does not mean that black officials have not engaged in corruption, nor that corruption is not a serious problem today. But as Thompson himself acknowledged, the current regime inherited a system in which corruption thrived. Moreover, it thrived without today's constitutionally protected auditor-general and an active parliament to uncover these misdeeds. In the early 1990s, many visitors to South Africa were warned to remember the corruption of the white-led years when new stories of corruption emerged later. This was done precisely to avoid the unfortunate inference, which Thompson makes, that blacks in Africa will almost inevitably lead their countries to ruin. Earlier South African experiences should have taught us that corruption is an equal-opportunity phenomenon.

Black South Africans have demonstrated enormous patience and understanding at the slow pace by which economic equalities and opportunities have emerged. The African National Congress, with its conservative, future-oriented economic policies, received more votes in 1999 than in 1994. Today the Johannesburg suburbs enjoy bursts of new construction projects, and projections for economic growth this year remain optimistic. None of this takes away from the problems Thompson describes. But it confirms that Thompson's is not the whole picture.

Princeton N. Lyman

Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace, and U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, 1992-95