A Cabinet minister recently was asked by a foreign visitor at a dinner party here why, in a country publicly committed to socialist equality, so many top government officials owned Mercedes-Benzes.

"It's very simple," the minister replied. "In Zimbabwe, socialism means what's mine is mine, but what's yours we share."

The response was meant in jest, but it has an element of truth that is disturbing to many in Africa's newest independent nation. Four years after black majority rule came to Zimbabwe, the faint but unmistakable scent of public corruption and private greed has entered the political atmosphere here.

Shadows have been cast recently over a number of top officials. A senior Cabinet minister has been accused in court by former subordinates of involvement in a bribery scandal. The senior civil servant in the Defense Ministry has been accused by a parliamentary committee of obstructing its investigation into financial irregularities in the ministry. The panel also alleged that the official was personally responsible for nearly $150,000 in excess payments to a politically influential Harare businessman who has been convicted since of defrauding the state.

Two weeks ago the general manager of the state-run national railroad was suspended, then reinstated, pending an investigation of charges he had misused government funds to buy a car and furniture. A number of other Cabinet ministers, while not accused of wrongdoing, have been criticized privately for quietly buying farms and extending their business interests while at the same time publicly avowing their faith in Marxism.

One of those most troubled by the reports of corruption is Prime Minister Robert Mugabe, an avowed Marxist-Leninist. Mugabe has denounced unnamed officials in his own government who, he said recently, "preach socialism by day and practice capitalism by night."

Last August, the national congress of Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union unanimously approved a strict leadership code of conduct that prohibits officials from having outside business interests or owning property beyond their own homes. The code reportedly has been altered already, in a bow to reality, to allow officials to own farms of up to 120 acres.

Furthermore, no one has been forced to quit or divest himself of holdings since the code took effect, and many here believe Mugabe's strictures are out of step with the get-rich-quick atmosphere that seems to have taken hold.

"The whole of Zimbabwe is moving toward the fast buck while Mugabe and a small clique of cohorts is heading in the opposite direction," said a white business executive with close ties to the government.

Corruption has become a fact of life and an important feature of the political landscape of many African countries. The bribe, known in West Africa as "dash" or "speed," is in some nations a necessary part of every official transaction, from obtaining a driver's license or a passport to enrolling a child in school.

On a grander scale, lurid tales of venality -- the estimated $5 billion to $7 billion that Nigerian politicians illegally "exported" before last New Year's Eve coup, the $4 billion that opponents say Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko has salted away in Swiss bank accounts and chalets -- have become part of the conventional wisdom of what's gone wrong in Africa. Even Marxist-oriented countries such as Angola, where diamond smuggling by bureaucrats became a major growth industry until a recent crackdown, have not seemed immune.

But some analysts contend that African corruption is more a symptom than a disease, one that in part reflects what British journalist and author Paul Harrison calls "the unholy marriage of political and economic power, whereby money buys influence and power attracts money." African states generally are so poor that governments are at the center of economic life, controlling virtually all investment opportunities and the few available jobs.

Even in the few states with relatively lively economic climates, such as Kenya or Ivory Coast, governments keep tight reins on capital and strict controls on foreign investment. Few entrepreneurs invest in Kenya without first cementing relations with influential politicians, often with gratuities or investment shares given to officials themselves or their relatives.

Another factor is what economist Gunnar Myrdal called the "softness" of the African state -- the inability of even the most well-meaning of officials to enforce their own regulations. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, like Zimbabwe's Mugabe, preaches personal asceticism, accepts only a nominal $7,000 annual salary and has enacted strict anticorruption statutes. Yet during the past decade, bribery has increased as a by-product of the country's economic decline.

Economic weakness also has fueled graft. At many hotels in Nigeria, a session with an illegal money-changer, often a hotel employe, became a routine part of the check-in process for foreign guests. In Mozambique, the official exchange rate for the metecal is about 40 to the dollar; in any Maputo market, it is nearly 20 times more.

By these standards, Zimbabwe is relatively prosperous and less corrupt than many. But some analysts here fear that the gap between official theory and actual practice fuels disrespect for the law among both officials and the public.

The fact that some officials have managed to hold onto their positions after being implicated in serious irregularities has not helped. While Harare businessman Sampson Paweni was sentenced to 15 years for defrauding the state out of $5 million in drought relief funds, Kumbirai Kangai, the Cabinet official whose ministry allowed the swindle to take place, has remained in the Cabinet, although transferred to another post.

Some smaller fish have not been so lucky. As of August, the government reported that nearly 50 officials had been convicted of corruption and more than 100 others suspended without pay while under investigation. The deputy minister of youth, sports and recreation lost his post after a legislative committee alleged that he had accepted a $5,000 loan from a white farm owner a few days after the farmer sold the ministry an estate at a price nearly twice its market value.

But William Irvine, the white independent who chairs the panel, said in an interview that such actions do not happen frequently enough. "I'm disappointed more action has not taken place," he said, noting that his committee only has the power to recommend that cases be pursued, while it is up to the police and the state public service commission to take legal or disciplinary steps.

Auditor General John Hilligan's annual report, released last month, was five months late this year because, he charged, officials in various ministries either had delayed or refused to comply with regulations on submitting records. The result, he charged in the report, is that police probes into possible frauds were hamstrung because "by the time they were investigated, the records seem to have often mysteriously disappeared."